A Charlie Salter Omnibus: A Charlie Salter Mystery Paperback – Oct 1 2003
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Take this omnibus to the beach. You will not be disappointed! (Independently Reviewed, Summer 2004)
Eric Wright's popular detective, Charlie Salter, is introduced in this collection of the first three books in the well-loved mystery series: The Night the Gods Smiled, Smoke Detector, and Death in the Old Country. Self-righteous and outspoken, Salter has gotten himself shunted to routine duties from what he considers the "real" police work of investigation. However, circumstances give him the chance to redeem himself, and his intelligence and sensitivity guide him through the cases that follow. Interwoven in the detective work, Charlie's wry humour and perception and his personal relationships and family life add extra dividends and enjoyment for the reader.
About the Author
Eric Wright is the author of four detective series. The first Charlie Salter book won the Arthur Ellis Award, the John Creasey Award, and the City of Toronto Book Award. Wright has also written a comic novel and an engaging memoir of growing up in working-class London, England.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Charlie Salter is an attractive protagonist, 46 years old, contentedly married with two sons, but initially depressed because his career is down the tubes. He backed the wrong candidate for the Deputy Chief’s job and has been sidelined for over a year with “general duties” assignments--the piddling details no one else wants to do. When David Summers, a professor of English at Toronto’s Douglas College is murdered while attending an English conference in Montreal, Salter is assigned to assist Henri O’Brien of the Montreal police by questioning Summers’s local associates. Summers, Professor Dunkley (his long-time enemy), John Carrier, Marika Tils, Professor Usher, and Toby Pollock annually attend a conference together after the end of term; they also meet up with former colleague Jane Homer. The murder scene looks like a robbery by a prostitute and/or her pimp gone bad, but Summers’s wallet hasn’t been taken. As Salter pokes around and asks questions, he discovers political, social, and sexual tensions within the English Department and something that had produced a “day the gods were smiling” for Summers his last day on earth. But what? Why had Summers been killed?
I like Inspector Charlie Salter. He’s a believable character, a man who grew up poor but married above his social class. “From the beginning, [Salter] had defended himself against feeling like the poor cousin by refusing to get involved in activities such as sailing, playing bridge, tennis, trout-fishing with flies, and constructing bonfires suitable for baking clams. Apart from the skills involved, he was sure he would get the costume wrong and appear in sandals for some activity that required hiking boots or bare feet. So when he was on the Island [Prince Edward] he played golf, a game to which he had been introduced to by some police pals; he swam; and he watched the other activities from a distance, or ignored them altogether. Over the years his bloody-mindedness and their consideration for his feelings had created two worlds, one which involved him, and the other one which they talked about and enjoyed among themselves. It was an arrangement that suited him, preserved his independence, as he put it to himself... Salter came by his attitudes honestly enough; his father had tried no new foods, at home or in restaurants, for thirty years, on the grounds that it was all foreign muck and you couldn’t tell what you were eating. The truth was that the old man was afraid he would make a fool of himself by not knowing how to eat it.” (30-1) Charlie is a dynamic character who grows realistically in the course of the case. Other characters are well drawn. I have relatives like his father.
Wright locates the story firmly with details of locale, and he also uses atmosphere to add to characterization. “Salter let his host [Henri O’Brien] do the ordering, and they ate some carrot soup, a veal stew that tasted agreeably of liquorice, and a big piece of soft, white cheese with some strawberries. They ate a lot of bread with it and drank a big bottle of wine. Salter was not a connoisseur, but he had eaten enough bad food to know the good when he tasted it, even if the upper levels of discrimination were beyond him. This all tasted all right.” (188-90)
Despite Wright’s skillful misdirection, he includes appropriate clues that produce a satisfactory surprise ending. It’s gratifying that Salter’s success in solving the case puts him back on track in his career. I do have a couple of small complaints. Henri O’Brien introduces himself to Salter as Inspector O’Brien; throughout the rest of the book, he’s referred to as Sergeant O’Brien. Several of the characters, including two of the English professors, have no given names, only family ones. But these are minor matters.
Despite its age, THE NIGHT THE GODS SMILED is solidly written and holds up well. I’ll be looking for more books in the series.
Unlike your humble reviewer, my one-time classmate can boast a long and distinguished list of literary progeny, as well as several prestigious awards. But, IMHO, he has never surpassed the 3 mystery novels in this collection. The Night the Gods Smiled and Smoke Detector, both set in Wright's adopted country, are excellent but Death in the Old Country, set in his native England, is in a class by itself. If it was adapted for PBS's Masterpiece Mystery series the word "masterpiece" would not be hyperbole.
Those looking for an Agatha Christie type whodunnit, where the "puzzle" is the thing, should look elsewhere. This Omnibus is not pure escapist literature, with an ingenuous plot, cardboard characters, and little relation to real life, but simply literature. The hallmark of the top ranking mystery writers, like Chandler and Hammett, is that their prose is so powerful, their descriptions so vivid, their characters so colorful, and the narrative so believable that you don't CARE whodunit.
Eric Wright's work falls into that category. The first part of Death in the Old Country, for instance, where Charlie Salter and his wife are "enjoying" a holiday in the English countryside, is as riveting as the mystery the title promises. When Wright finally gets around to the "death" that serves as the fulcrum for the plot it's like a bonus. At a total price of $4.34 (which works out to less than $1.50 a novel) the Charlie Salter Omnibus is one of the cheapest and most enjoyable rides on the World Wide Web.