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the price of failure

18 february 2019

In my quixotic project of reading through my public library's mystery section in alphabetical order, I have just reached As-At. Though I am very, very far from reading every one. I reject the cozies, the espionage stories, and just about anything I don't like after five or ten pages. This still leaves far more than a reasonable person would set about reading.

But the stupid selection principle A-Z also pulls up a lot of good things that one might not get to with a smarter approach. Jeffrey Ashford, for instance, is a writer I might not have gotten to any other way, and might not even belong in As-At to start with, since the name appears to be a pseudonym for Roderic Jeffries, a ninetysomething Englishman who lives on Majorca and seems to have written about a hundred crime novels. There is not much about Jeffries on the Internet – a few pared-down checklists, a handful of Amazon reviews. His multiple pseudonyms and penchant for writing standalone procedurals (though he also has two long-running series to his credit) seem to have dissipated potential fandom. I'd almost speculate that Jeffries has never cared much about becoming a household name.

The first of Jeffries (as Ashford)'s I came across was The Price of Failure (1995). At this point in his career, Jeffries/Ashford had written about 70 novels and was in his late sixties – if there's ever a time to phone it in, that would seem to be the juncture. But The Price of Failure is stark, fresh, and compelling.

The protagonist of The Price of Failure is really an entire English CID, though a detective constable named Carr gets more page-time than any of his fellows. The novel opens with a horrific kidnapping compounded by rape, and I almost put it down at that point – another kind of Krimi I reject is the sadism-for-its-own-sake genre. But soon enough, The Price of Failure backs away from its extreme premise and enters the familiar world of the English police establishment, with its time-servers, its pint-hoisters, its fussy weekend gardeners in their (at best) semi-detached houses. A fictional world, I hasten to add, and one that has perhaps more in common with the fictional forces of Ed McBain or K. Arne Blom than with any actual English police unit. But as with most police procedurals, the aim is not authenticity but a kind of tracing of police work onto worlds that readers can relate to from their own workplaces, with their various reporting structures, ambitions for promotion, and staring down the barrel of retirement.

The initial kidnapping and rape turn out to be just a setup. We see the criminals at work, so this is not a true mystery story. Their idea is to terrify potential victims into paying a huge ransom without question when the villains spring their next kidnapping. Such a diabolical scheme requires a skilled team and intense discipline, so of course it goes wrong: some word about their plans leaks somehow, and the bad guys need some leverage so that they can induce a counter-leak to spring within the CID.

That's where DC Carr comes in. Weakened by a near-zero bank balance and his cares about a depressed wife in the late stages of a dangerous pregnancy, Carr succumbs to pressure from the kidnappers to become their eyes and ears within the police force. At this point I'll stop the synopsis to leave the book unspoiled. You can work out many of the possibilities yourself, and as always with books in a formulaic genre, the fun comes from trying to see which of the many formulaic possibilities this one will seize on, and which it will avoid.

But The Price of Failure is elegantly constructed and sparely written. I have high hopes for the other couple of "Ashford" novels that my library has on offer, and I want to get some of Jeffries' series titles as well. He is an author whose overall achievement – unless I somehow picked the very best of his hundred books to read first – ought to be better known.

Ashford, Jeffrey. The Price of Failure. 1995. New York: St. Martin's, 1998.