Sunday, 10 February 2013

Penguin no. 1710: The Case of Torches
by Clark Smith

(Cover design by George Daulby)
It began one morning in July. It was a hot, airless morning with a haze over the city and the streets soft with tar. I remembered it afterwards with the clarity subsequent events sometimes give to their beginnings, and there were times later when I imagined that from the start I had sensed trouble to come. It was a quiet job, judged by some of the others I have worked on, but it had a deadly quality about it that I haven't forgotten nor found easy to live with since.

I have never been in London in July so I cannot be certain that the weather at that time of year isn't stiflingly dry and dusty, and the 'streets soft with tar', although I cannot recall anyone else ever describing it that way. Searing summer heat is the norm where I live, and I tend to think of England as a place of comparatively mild summer temperatures, and perhaps cold and dismal winters. Yet the two Clark Smith crime novels I have read have both shared this obsession with England's apparently dry summer weather and its accompanying heat. It is mentioned frequently, with the harsh light and oppressive conditions filling in the background of both stories. Perhaps he was trying to invoke an atmosphere more in keeping with the harsher American hard-boiled style he emulates, or perhaps London really did seem hot to him when compared to Glasgow.

Alexander Clark Smith was a chartered accountant who wrote only three crime novels, all published between 1955 and 1957, and all later issued as green Penguins, with The Case of Torches being the final one. His sleuth is Nicky Mahoun who hails from what was then the tough Gorbals district of Glasgow. He is created in the tradition of the private investigator, being independent, uncompromising and incorruptible, though with perhaps fewer flaws than the typical hard-boiled sleuth, as he abstains from cigarettes and alcohol, keeps regular hours, and has an aversion to overly made up women. He spends his working days as head of the auditing department of an engineering firm, and this actually works surprisingly well, although it was difficult not to feel slightly amused by the image of the hard-bitten Mahoun (at least in The Deadly Reaper) setting out to solve a crime by getting out his pens and taking up the paperwork.

The Case of Torches begins very slowly, and there were times when I marvelled that anyone had ever managed to read beyond the first few chapters. The problem comes from the use of first-person narration, as Mahoun spends a lot of time early in the story reflecting on how to write a good audit report, or how to appropriately assess a tender, or thinking on how the boss of production views the boss of finance, or how the boss of finance succeeded in manoeuvring his way to the top. All of this is important in the context of the later story, but rather dull to read through, and it means that nothing seems to happen for a very long time.

And when something does happen, it is trivial, merely an aberration in the paperwork. A box of torch cases, imported from Belgium without batteries, and of very little value, is found to be missing during a regular stocktake, and then found to be present during a later recount. The possibility that the mistake was in the counting never seems to be considered. But suspicion and thoroughness are perhaps the essential attributes of an investigative auditor, and so this seemingly insignificant discrepancy in an audit report is enough to capture Mahoun's interest, and he begins an investigation, mostly in his own time, and without the support of his boss.

It turns out that the imported torch cases are of little interest, but the batteries which will power them matter. The sourcing of these batteries provides abundant opportunities for the various division bosses to exercise power, scores points off each other, and attempt to thwart everyone else's ambitions. And there is one person who cares so much about how the batteries are to be sourced that they are willing to commit murder to ensure it happens in the way that suits them. Nicky Mahoun uses the skills he has developed as an investigative auditor to first determine that a crime has been committed, and then to locate the murder victim, and identify the murderer.

As thrillers go, the motivating premise of this one lacks excitement, and yet Clark Smith does eventually turn the book around so that it becomes quite interesting to read. But as the story unfolds, it is clear that there is another point he wishes to make, and one which perhaps explains why he wrote no more Nicky Mahoun books. There is a difference between the auditor and the men he works with, and it is a difference which he finds increasingly troubling. He is honourable, and interested in people, but the rest of the bureaucracy is preoccupied with money, power and success. This is a novel in which the protagonist's sympathies are with the workers, and there is a criticism of corporations and the callousness which guides the actions of the individuals who control them.

By the same author:
Penguin no. 1605: The Deadly Reaper


  1. coincidently, I finished the book today, inspired by your blog.

    I was less taken by the was just a build.

    I thought it was an interesting read, though with Mahoun taking on something closer to James Bond than your usual internal auditor!

    The best recommendation is that I look forward to the other 2 fiction books that you mention he wrote though I think I will miss the textbook on internal audit/ accounting.

    As a comparison, people may want to try the books by Emma Lathen

    1. I can recommend The Deadly Reaper, which I really enjoyed, and I don't recall finding it as slow in the beginning, although I was amused by this idea of an auditor as hard-boiled sleuth. I have The Speaking Eye as well (I was delighted to find it along with this one in a small bookshop in Amsterdam last year), and so I plan to read it soon.

  2. lovely post.

    it is true - London is only hot for about a week each year - but it becomes So Hot and there's no real air conditioning (well, there wasn't when we grew up there) and everyone suddenly becomes freckled and puts on the summer floaty cotton dresses and eats ice-cream (99 - with the chocolate flake and the icecream that soaks into the cone and onto your fingers) and a bit Flirty and the memory sears into one's brain that suddenly summer appeared to have stretched out for months - especially as the chestnuts fall and the nights become shorter and people become wistful (a very english trait) about what-was-lost by summer's end.

    just wanted to paint you an extra word portrait.


    teamgloria xx

  3. Not a writer I've heard of but I love reading about descriptions of London. London can get stifling hot for a few days every summer but in fact the hear is humid so you find yourself with wringing clothes. I've lived in dry Mediterranean countries with the smell of burning tarmac, but you're right, I don't really associate it with London.

    I'll look out for this author. Thanks Karyn.

  4. Well batteries are important! Great title! On the surface you would imagine that it would be a parody.

    1. You would think so, but I suspect that any humour was completely unintentional.

  5. As a Glaswegian who lived near London for a couple of years I can say that London is quite a bit hotter and drier than Glasgow, which is well known for being very wet and chilly. Thanks, I hadn't heard of Clark Smith.

  6. Not sure that the humour was unintentional - Grandad was a very drily humorous man, in dour Scottish way!!



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