The new novel Five and a Half Tons by John Bayliss (Holland House Books) prompts me to ask: Five and a Half Tons of what? Inspector Willis of the Westerby (England) constabulary answers the question:
“‘By the way, Springer,’ Willis said, ‘A word of warning. If you want to go round this neighbourhood calling yourself a private detective then that’s fine by me . . . but I don’t take too kindly to amateurs interfering in police business. If you get in my way in future, on this or any other matter, then I’ll come down on you like the proverbial five and a half tons of nutty slack. Okay?'”
I still don’t know what nutty slack is, but I’m beginning to get the idea. So is Detective J.F. Springer. Beneath his moronic self-effacement lies a keen intelligence less interested in solving crimes than in maintaining an amused persona for dealing with failure.
Not that he’s given much opportunity to solve crime. Westerby-on-Sea has never acknowledged his professional skills. He, himself, doubts that he has any. Holed up in a depressing apartment where he eats his daily breakfast of corn flakes and milk beneath a poster of Robert Mitchum (he claims to be so inept that he can’t even get the poster he really wants, Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe), he waits for the phone to ring until, restless and looking for distraction (employment is out of the question), he goes to his habitual bar where he can afford just one beer poured by the owner who holds him in lamentable contempt.
Nothing daunted, he carries on, cheerfully trying to collect small debts in order to pay off the larger ones his lack of investigative aptitude has forced him to accrue — until he stumbles onto an international crime ring temporarily marooned on the shores of Westerby-on-Sea.
It is a credit to Bayliss’s skillful plotting that J.F. Springer is able to achieve (the verb “achieve” is somehow all wrong for Springer) inadvertent success while the reader continues to enjoy the man’s wry relationship with incompetence. Brought to witty, idiotic life by the illustrations of Bustling Lloyd, J.F. Springer pretends he’s the village idiot, knowing full well how to survive the waters that slosh up against ridiculous, lovable Westerby-on-Sea.
Oh — and nutty slack? I had to ask. It’s not the product of digestive tract activity, as I originally surmised. It is, however, organic. It’s a kind of coal.