All The Lonely People by Martin Edwards

Liverpool, 1991. Lawyer Harry Devlin is surprised to come home one evening to find his long-estranged wife Liz on his sofa watching television – appropriately, Woody Allen’s Love and Death. She has fled the house she shares with local villain Mike Coghlan and is looking for a place to stay for a couple of days. But within twenty four hours, she is lying in an alley, stabbed to death. Harry is convinced that Coghlan is responsible and sets out to prove it. The only complications being, a) he cannot seem to find Coghlan and b) the police have another prime suspect – Harry himself.

I recently reviewed Harry Devlin’s latest case, Waterloo Sunset, due to the fact that I was going to a talk by Martin Edwards and Kate Ellis at Formby Books. You can read a write-up on that excellent event over on Martin’s blog. It was a wonderful evening, especially the talks given by the authors. So it is entirely possible that you may consider this review a little on the biased side – but it’s not. Despite my copy of the book being dedicated to Puzzle Doctor by Martin and the fact that he’s written nice things about my blog over on his site, this is an entirely unbiased review.

Do bear that in mind when I say that this is one of the best mystery novels that I’ve read in ages. That’s not bias, that’s a fact.

OK, to be fair, the last two books that I read were absolute duffers, but the primary thought that was going through my head was the disbelief that a book this well-constructed was Martin’s first book. At the talk, he spoke of a love of Agatha Christie from a young age and a desire to construct a novel that was a genuine mystery story, clues and everything. Well, this is exactly what he set out to write.

Plot-wise, it’s clever, throwing developments at you to ensure that you are looking the wrong way. While the central mystery is progressing, there are a multitude of red herrings to get past – some obvious and some not-so-obvious. I had one character tagged for the murderer from quite early on, and I’m fairly sure that the character was presented as a red herring for armchair sleuths, rather than a red herring for casual readers. Maybe I’m reading too much into that… maybe not, though. As the book reaches the denouement, I think the smart reader can probably spot the killer about a chapter ahead of Harry, which is the right sort of pace for me. Obviously I’d prefer for it to come completely out of the blue, but that’s a very hard trick to pull off convincingly.

As for the writing style, it sucks you in completely. In terms of plot, it may attempt to mirror Christie, with the clues and the red herrings, but in terms of the prose, this is miles ahead. Harry is a likeable protagonist and you feel his pain and frustration as he is determined to avenge his wife, despite the increasingly worrying things he finds out about her. But the title (taken as I’m sure you know from Eleanor Rigby) doesn’t just apply to him, but to a number of others in the story. Don’t misunderstand, it’s not a depressing book, far from it, but an air of loneliness hangs over it.

I’m not sure how much the book being set in Liverpool, the city that I’ve lived near for the past seven years helps to fan my affections for the book. Knowing of some of the places mentioned – although I’m not convinced there was lunchtime mud-wrestling available for bored city-types, even the 1990s – adds an extra resonance to the book for me that might conceivably be lacking for other readers.

This has just been reissued in the UK in the Arcturus Crime Classics range. Here’s hoping that it does well and we see more Harry Devlin being re-issued, either on paper or as an ebook. On the strength of this and Waterloo Sunset, I’ll be at the head of the queue. Very highly recommended.

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About Puzzle Doctor

I'm a mathematician by nature and as such have always been drawn to the logical side of things. Hence my two main hobbies being classic mysteries and logical puzzling. Oh, and cats. No logic there, I'm afraid.
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20 Responses to All The Lonely People by Martin Edwards

  1. Patrick says:

    This here is an excellent review. I’m a reader of Martin’s truly excellent blog and seeing your recent reviews of his books make me even more interested in them than the blog alone has already made me. I’ll probably take a look at one of his novels sometime this year (no idea when I could manage it!)– you seem to consistently reccomend them in very warm terms!

    • Not sure of the international availability but I’d recommend reading the Lake District stories in order – The Coffin Trail is the first. I think the order of the Devlins are less important…

  2. Oh great, another really good book by Martin Edwards I have to go out and buy – you are expensively persuasive mate! Great review – I’ll be getting on THE COFFIN TRAIL (sic) shortly ….

    Cheers,
    Sergio

  3. John says:

    This was the first book I read of Martin’s and I read it long before he was also saying very kind things about my own blog. I liked it a lot. It’s a remarkable debut for a fiction writer, I think. No clue why it took more than ten years after its original appearance to be published in a US edition. I especially liked the scenes at the garbage dump (called something else in your part of the world, but I forget the term) and the homeless characters who haunted that place. One of the most original aspects of the book, IMO.

    • John, I didn’t want to seem to gushing in my praise, but you’ve mentioned a point that I edited out of my first draft – I can’t believe how good it is for a first novel. I really can’t recommend it hightly enough.

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  6. TC says:

    Based on your recommendation, I bought and read this book recently. I agree that it’s an excellent debut. The only thing I was disappointed with was the solution. I won’t delve my reasons for feeling that way to keep this spoiler-free, but I felt let down. That issue aside, I still felt this was a great book and definitely worth a look. I live in the U.S. and picked up my copy online from Book Depository. It definitely made me curious about his other works.

    • Glad you enjoyed it. To be honest, can’t remember much about the solution, which bodes well for the chance to re-read it later in life, but I certainly didn’t have an issue with it.

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  13. zurlocker says:

    I’ve only just recently stumbled across this site and the Harry Devlin series, but both look interesting. Based on the review here, I’ll pick up a Kindle version and dive into this series. thanks much!

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  15. Santosh Iyer says:

    I have to disagree with you on this book. I did not like the book. I did not like most of the main characters including Harry Devlin.
    Both the plot and the clueing are not much to speak of. Why does the author hide till the end the relationship of the murderer with another character? Also, the clue relating [SPOILER] is so deeply hidden that I do not think any reader will spot it. However, the Police should have been aware of these clues and able to identify the criminal easily.
    The heroics of Harry Devlin did not impress me especially since he was a wimp before his wife. I would like to echo Macbeth’s words to him,“…..we have to accept you were devoted to your late wife, despite the fact she treated you like dirt. That you have no pride, that you will let a woman walk all over you, turn you into a laughing stock, and still shed a tear when she gets her just desserts.”
    The atmosphere is depressing. Liverpool is depicted as a crime-ridden dump with people even scouring garbage.

    • Well, to be honest, it’s been a while since I read this and don’t recall many plot details. But I had absolutely no problems with the mystery at all. But to address two of your points.

      1) I take issue with Harry being a wimp. Still being in love with someone despite what they’ve done to you – that’s being human, not being a wimp. And I wouldn’t say Harry’s a hero, just a man playing at being a detective.

      2) As for Liverpool, this was written in and set in a period of particular poverty in many parts of the country, Liverpool included. It was not an easy place to live in and I think Martin does a wonderful job of showing the positive side of a city that tended to get negative coverage in the press. I don’t see it as having a depressing atmosphere at all – stark, yes, but not depressing.

      Sorry that you didn’t like this modern classic. I think you’re probably in a minority on this one – I’d avoid the rest of the series if you didn’t like this one.

  16. Santosh Iyer says:

    When I express my views, I am least concerned whether I am in a majority or a minority. ( By the way, the average rating for this book in goodreads,.com is lower than that of Last Wool and Testament by Molly Macrae or The Last Detective by Peter Lovesey.)

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