“The Diabolical Club” by Stevyn Colgan (2019)

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“Joan Bultitude’s poodles were noisy, prone to biting and indiscriminate in their toilet habits, which meant that they were disliked by almost everyone who had ever had the misfortune of encountering them.”

If there are two things the English seem to manage better than anyone else (in my humble, and hyperbolic, opinion) it’s comedy and murder mysteries. Fortunately, the universe gifted us Stevyn Colgan, the love-child of Ngaio Marsh and Douglas Adams. The Diabolical Club is his second novel, and it’s as much of a riot as the first. Come with me to South Herewardshire.

As the novel opens, we find several disparate threads to deal with. First up, headmistress Joan Bultitude has just uncovered a skeleton on the grounds of Harpax Grange School, an exclusive girls’ school in the village of Nasely. Her new secretary, Phoebe Kingshaw, is actually working for Sir Giles Luscott-Whorne, an MP with whom she is also having an affair. Giles has sent her there to find any dirt she can on Bultitude, as Harpax Grange is his family’s old home and he wants it back. This is complicated enough, but there’s also been a resurgence lately in sightings of the Shaggy Beast, a wolf-like creature with an engorged penis that is said to stalk Black Dog Woods.

When Phoebe does find something at Harpax Grange that she considers to be “dynamite”, she begs Giles to come and meet her, but before she can pass on what she’s found, she is murdered for her knowledge. The police are called in and with Giles the prime suspect, his standing in society plummets. He recalls a retired detective, Frank Shunter, who solved the crime the last time Nasely had a murder, and hires him to prove his innocence. As the village works itself up into a frenzy, secrets are bound to come spilling out. It seems that village life isn’t as quiet and parochial as one would expect. Some of the locals are also planning on finding the Shaggy Beast once and for all, but will have to contend with the other residents of the woods – namely the doggers and the animal rights activists currently plotting to save Gertie’s Plash, a local pond, from being drained.

Colgan is a master of witticisms, almost rivalling his hero Douglas Adams in the way he slips in perfectly formed jokes at rapid fire speeds. He has a beautiful and effective way with words and metaphor, and isn’t afraid to give something a long set up for a killer punchline. He’s also a master at naming characters. In these pages we meet Oberon Tremblett, Janus Gugge, Gerry Waxleigh, Len Youlden, Raif Clyst and Charlie Barnfather. I’m not sure how many of them are real surnames, but if they’re not they all sound like they could be. The characters are complex and vibrant, and each name suits them perfectly. I don’t know how he does it, but in the same way that Trunchbull is the perfect name for a stern headmistress, so is Bultitude.

The murder mystery element of the story is also fun, although I admit I’d taken a guess early on and was proven to be right, so my journey was one of just waiting to find out how the murderer was caught, rather than who it was. That doesn’t make it any less enjoyable, however, as there are other things here that I could never have begun to guess would have happened, and it’s a rich tapestry of a world. It also feeds back into the first novel about reclusive crime writer Agnes Crabbe, but never entirely lets her dominate, meaning the story is clearly set in the same universe, and some elements will mean more to the reader if they’ve already read the first in the series, but is just as enjoyable without.

As a fun bonus, too, if you take a look at the page at the front of the book that showcases praise for Colgan’s previous novel, you might come across a quote taken from a very familiar blog, right there beneath quotes from Stephen Fry and Sandi Toksvig. I found it quite the honour.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows a man who is tired of being single while all his friends get married, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

Book Chat: Stevyn Colgan

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Stevyn Colgan is the perfect man to have to write an introduction about. At 57, he has lived enough lives for several people over. In his time he has been a policeman, public speaker, artist, novelist, and researcher for QI and The Museum of Curiosity. I’ve come to know Stevyn a little recently as we’ve both published our latest novels via Unbound, and he’s genuinely a really lovely chap.

His books include Joined-Up Thinking, a trivia book that theorises (and proves) that all facts are connected, and the utterly hilarious A Murder to Die For. He’s also recently become a podcaster and the first episode of his podcast, We’d Like A Word was released earlier this month. He presents the podcast about words, writing and reading with Paul Waters.

Based in the area of Britain where Midsomer Murders does most of its filming, Stevyn found a moment among the countless demands on his time to answer a few of my questions about his favourite books.

What are you reading at the moment?

I’m currently on a mission to read as many ‘forgotten’ comic novels as I can find. Some real treasures have turned up including Eric Morecambe’s Mister Lonely and W E Bowman’s The Ascent of Rum Doodle.

What genres do you prefer?

I love literary comedy across all genres so will happily read Tom Sharpe, Jonathan Coe, Stella Gibbons, Douglas Adams, Sue Townsend, Terry Pratchett, David Nobbs, George MacDonald Fraser, Helen Fielding, John Niven…

What factors are important to you when choosing a book?

The world can be a sad, tragic and miserable place. I want to read things that are uplifting and/or joyful. I want to learn. I want to go “Wow!” I want to feel better after reading. I want to smile and snigger and chuckle.

What were your favourite books growing up?

The Uncle books by J. P. Martin. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ various adventure stories on Mars, Venus or at the Earth’s core. Down with Skool and all the other Molesworth books by Willans and Searle. Asterix the Gaul. Any books with dinosaurs in them.

Have you read any books translated from a foreign language and how did you find them?

Probably not enough. On the whole it’s been a positive experience from the Asterix the Gaul books (the late Anthea Bell was a genius translator) to Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared. Or should I say, Hundraåringen som klev ut genomfönstret och försvann?

Which author, dead or alive, would you most like to meet?

I’m lucky that I’ve met most of the authors who influenced me. But top of the list of people I haven’t met and would have most liked to is P. G. Wodehouse.

Hardback, paperback, eBook or audiobook?

I love the feel and smell of physical books and have a library of over two thousand. But it’s the words that count and I read more than I could ever find storage for, so a Kindle is a godsend too. If it’s a book I love it doesn’t matter what form it takes

Can you tell me about a book that taught you something, either about yourself or the world?

Pretty much all of them. I read maybe two or three books per week in the ratio of 2:1 non-fiction to fiction. I’m always learning and always smiling. It’s hard to single out any particular books but Sir Ken Robinson’s Out of Our Minds was amazing, as was Dubner and Levitt’s Freakonomics, and Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow.

Can you describe your ideal reading set up?

Somewhere quiet, warm, comfy, well-lit, with a big mug of hot black Earl Grey and a thick slab of fruit cake.

The impossible question: what is your favourite book?

No idea. Maybe Last Chance to See by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine. The most perfect blend of humour, travel writing and pathos.

You can find Stevyn all over the Internet: on Twitter, on Unbound and on his podcast’s website.

“A Murder To Die For” by Stevyn Colgan (2018)


“A warm drizzle began to fall just as the very last piece of festival bunting was being hung.”

As surely anyone who follows me on Twitter or is a regular reader here will know, I went through the crowdfunding publishers Unbound to produce my second novel, The Third Wheel, and thanks to the support of many of you, it will be out later this year (and there is still time to pre-order a copy!) While scratching around the website, however, I of course stumbled across many other works-in-progress, some of which I have supported in turn. A Murder to Die For was already funded by the time I got to it, but that’s no bad thing. As seems to be the purpose of Unbound, it seemed exactly the sort of book I was looking for…

Agnes Crabbe lived a solitary life between 1895 and 1943, penning many murder mystery novels, none of which saw the light of day. By accordance with her will, her manuscripts were revealed to the world at the turn of the millennium, and what was discovered blew everyone’s minds. Some of the best stories from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction were flung out into the world decades after they’d been written, birthing hundreds of TV adaptations, radio plays, stage shows, and fan clubs. Not least of these is the annual Agnes Crabbe Murder Mystery Festival held in her hometown of Nasely.

Normally a fairly sedate event where hundreds of fans – usually all dressed as Crabbe’s famous detective, Millicent Cutter – turn up to hear talks, swap theories and drink heavily, this year things go a bit different when the festival opens with a shocking murder. The heads of the different fan clubs begin to spread their own theories and given that the town is overrun with murder mystery fans, everyone thinks that they can be the one to solve the case. However, fiction isn’t as neat as reality, and the police first have to deal with all the amateur sleuths before they can get to the issue of what actually happened. But given that this is a village where the suspects, witnesses and victim are all dressed as Millicent Cutter, things are not always what they seem…

After a run of books that were temperate, unimpressive, or simply not capable to hitting exactly the right spots, it was a delight to breeze through this excellent novel over the weekend. Sat in the garden under a scorching sun, I consumed this in two days and slightly regret having done so, as it just made it end all the quicker. Stevyn Colgan, who has previously appeared in my consciousness as one of the QI elves and as a guest on one of my favourite podcasts, Worst Foot Forward, now turns his attention to fiction and does it with serious skill. A former policeman himself, he knows the ins and outs of the crime solving world and is as such perfectly placed to be able to bring the reality to the table.

The novel joyfully plays up the tropes and themes of murder mystery stories and while some of them are retained in full, he’s not above twisting, bending or snapping the rules as he deems fit. After all, crime stories follow a pattern – real life doesn’t. Colgan wrote the entire book, I’m sure, with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, giving the overblown and eccentric characters life in a way I’ve not seen for some time. It’s very silly, but it’s also very clever, much like something by Jasper Fforde. Although Colgan states in the novel’s acknowledgements that Agnes Crabbe’s life story mimics in many ways that of Vivian Maier, a photographer who only received acclaim for her work after her death, there feel enough references in here to also parody the greats like Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh. Beautifully, the novel also opens with an introduction to the life and work of Crabbe, and a complete list of her titles, all of which sound so improbably like mysteries from the golden age that I would love to have a read.

A truly remarkable, funny, sharp, creative and interesting look at murder mysteries. Bring on the sequel.