Book Corner – July 2020 (5)

The Batch Magna Caper – Peter Maughan

I find the best antidote to difficult times is to immerse yourself in a bit of light-hearted escapism and Maughan’s Batch Magna series, there are five in all, fits the bill admirably. This is the third of the series and whilst it avoids third album syndrome, I didn’t find it as good as the earlier two. Perhaps that is down to the introduction of characters extraneous to the quirky, motley crew who inhabit the sleepy village of Batch Magna, nestling on the banks of the river Cluny, half in Wales and half in Shropshire.

On opening the book, the reader is in for a bit of a shock. Instead of finding themselves in the heart of the countryside, the reader is taken to a shady pawnbroker’s shop where a gang of criminals, incompetent, naturally, and an unlikely mix of characters, are plotting a wages snatch on an engineering firm in Shrewsbury. They anticipate getting away with £100,000, still a tidy sum in the 1970s. As there is no honour amongst thieves, though, each member of the gang has their own plans to run off with the whole of the loot.

The raid takes place, news of it makes the front page of the local papers and even percolates into the consciousness of the residents of the Batch Magna. The carefully worked out getaway plan misfires and the money ends up in Batch Magna, triggering a farcical comedy of errors as various members of the gang try to recover it, whilst at the same time trying to do down their colleagues, and when the money is found in an outhouse of the Manor, the locals, who cannot resist a gossip and making two plus two equal five, think that the American lord of the manor, the flamboyant Sir Humphrey Strange, call me Humph, is the mastermind behind the operation, obviously he must have Mafia connections, and try their best to protect his reputation.

If you have criminals, you must have the police and a pretty inept lot they are. They regularly call in at the Manor to sample Shelly’s renowned hot dogs, a source of consternation to the gang, but they are too interested in feeding their faces to spot what is going on under their noses. The case is solved at a Civil War re-enactment in the grounds of the Manor in Ealing Comedy style by the downtrodden female sergeant, the fiancée of the incompetent Inspector Worth, much to his chagrin as he has made a point of eschewing traditional police methods in favour of modern psychological techniques.

The characters we have met before are all there, the Commander with his collection of glass eyes decorated for all occasions and his wife, Priny, who are moving off the water to live on dry land, Owain and Annie Owen, Humph, his wife Clem, and his mother, Shelly, Jasmine and her brood of children and, of course, the rouê that is Phineas Cook. Phineas manages, on a drunken night, to get engaged to the female police sergeant and both spend much of the book trying to disentangle themselves from the unsuitable arrangement.

Maughan does a sterling job in pulling all these strands together and there are genuine moments of farcical comedy interspersed with sharp observations of human nature. I did find, though, that the large cast and the competing themes and sub plots meant that the gentler innocence of the earlier books and the opportunity to immerse yourself in the trivia and petty squabbles of the carefree inhabitants of Batch Magna were somewhat lost. It was a brave decision by Maughan to deviate from a tried and tested formula. It did work but made for a less enjoyable book.

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