Review: McNally’s Caper
Mystery and PI novels often feature clever, sympathetic detectives, people you like or at least respect. McNally’s Caper doesn’t. Unless Inspector Clouseau is your idea of a stylish sleuth.
These are harsh words from someone who has never read any other books by this Edgar-winning, million-selling, near-legendary author. Sanders became famous in 1970 with The Anderson Tapes, a crime novel quickly adapted to film. Before his death in 1998 he’d written more than two dozen crime and mystery novels including The First Deadly Sin.
Published in 1994, McNally’s Caper is one of seven books in the McNally series written by Sanders. Another author continued the series after Sanders’ death. The book stars Archy McNally, son of a wealthy Palm Beach, Fla., attorney. Archy dabbles in detection while he pampers himself with the good life in the Florida sun. There’s nothing wrong with dabbling. Many accomplished amateur detectives were dabblers. Jane Marple dabbled. Archy, however, is a different sort.
The book is written in first person so Archy runs the show, and show off he does. Okay, maybe the comparison to Inspector Clouseau is unfair. Archy is not a bumbling fool but a spoiled, smug, part-time PI. He spends an inordinate amount of time describing items in his colorful wardrobe—such as a peony-patterned sport jacket—and the gourmet meals his father’s chef serves up. (Thirtyish Archy lives at home with his parents.)
Archy suffers no inferiority complex, something he demonstrates repeatedly, and his personality so dominates the narrative that the mystery becomes secondary to the protagonist’s preening and his dashing about South Florida from his club to the crime scene and back again, dressed in an ever-changing palette.
Archy’s style is difficult to separate from the author’s. Halfway through the book I realized exactly what bothered me. I was reminded of an admonition by Strunk and White in the classic writing manual, The Elements of Style. Reminder #9 Do Not Affect a Breezy Manner:
The breezy style is often the work of an egocentric, the person who imagines that everything that comes to mind is of general interest and that uninhibited prose creates high spirits and carries the day.
That’s a description of Archy’s chronicle. I could only see him as a self-indulgent, foppish ne’er-do-well. Now possibly Sanders was having us on, and he intentionally created a self-indulgent, foppish ne’er-do-well. If so, McNally is a coherent character. But he’s also insufferable.
Occasionally speaking directly to the reader is a part of Archy’s persona.
To refresh your muzzy memory [Fern Bancroft] was the twitchy maid who had discovered the half-strangled Sylvia Forsythe…. Do try to pay attention; I hope no more reminders will be necessary.
Inexplicably, women can’t seem to stay away from him. He beds a few attractive young ladies (one of whom was a suspect in the murder case) while making grandiose pledges of fidelity to his girlfriend Connie.
The plot of this McNally adventure is competently, if predictably, constructed. Archy is summoned by Griswold Forsythe II, a client of Archy’s father, to investigate the disappearance of various valuables from the Forsythe castle-like mansion. Forsythe II suspects someone in the household, servant or family member. The fun-house Forsythes are appropriately dysfunctional as are some of the staff. When Forsythe II is murdered, his son, Forsythe III, the housekeeper, and a suspicious stable hand are among the suspects.
The denouement is logical and more or less satisfying but hardly worth the journey.
If you have a different opinion of Archy and his hijinks-laden exploits, please let me know.