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On the cowboy’s trail: Powder Smoke, by Andrew Martin, reviewed

23 January 2021

9:00 AM

23 January 2021

9:00 AM

Powder Smoke Andrew Martin

Corsair, pp.336, 16.99

Detective Inspector Jim Stringer is back. This is a York novel, or rather a Yorkshire crime novel. The LNER railway policeman investigates a supposed double murder, tracing a young fairground sharpshooter, Kid Durrant, through the Yorkshire countryside. The action takes place over five days in early December 1925, but is interspersed with flashbacks to the previous summer.

At the York Gala, Stringer sees Durrant perform his fairground act, quick on the draw and deadly accurate with his pistol and rifle-shooting. His entertainment persona is a Wild West cowboy, presented with appropriate Western colloquialisms, spoken with an American accent acquired by way of Sheffield. The gala is observed by a rare female balloonist, Mary Ainsworth, who hovers bizarrely above the crowd.

Most of the older men in the novel are veterans of the ‘fourteen-eighteen’, the trenches of the Somme and Passchendaele. They know about guns, and many carry them. Stringer is still handicapped by an old wound in his right leg. The flashbacks tell of Durrant receiving the patronage of a beautiful film actress and her director husband. A tense triangular relationship develops, Cynthia Lorne, the actress, dominating the scenes, fuelled by drink and retirals to euphemistically ‘powder her nose’.

Stringer’s trail leads out of York, which is described lovingly: its ancient city walls, Walmgate, and the minster bells — ‘supposed to remind you of God, but they usually reminded Jim of licensing hours’. It takes him to Knaresborough, Pickering, Bolton Abbey, Rosedale Abbey, the North York moors, and also in the opposite direction. His wife Lydia accompanies him westwards to Leeds, where they stay in the best hotel. She is important in the York Women’s Co-operative Guild, ‘the kind of socialist who likes big, expensive hotels’.

Andrew Martin’s unusual tale is skilfully told. He authenticates the 1920s, the railways and the Wild West show with use of accurate descriptions and language. Acetylene bicycle lamps compete with new battery-powered lights. Half-crown coins are exchanged. Ainsworth’s balloon floats over ‘the loony bin’, and it costs ‘a bob’ to enter Durrant’s show. A ‘rake of apparently dead carriages’ waits in the sidings. Durrant tells a hotel boy to clear off: ‘Cloud the dust,’ he advises. The whole narration has a sympathetic sense of humour, deriving from acute observation of social mores. It all makes for a comfortable yet exciting read. Within its genre, this book triumphs.

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