I started reading Andrew Taylor’s mysteries about William Dougal a few years ago, when I stumbled across the first of them: Caroline Minuscule. Dougal begins as a cynical, amoral, and cowardly graduate student, working in medieval studies in a sort of lazy and desultory way. When his tutor is murdered practically under Dougal’s nose, he spends his time about equally noticing clues and suspects, and trying to get out of doing any such dangerous thing. It’s funny, unexpected, and engaging: in a world of detective stories where the sleuth is nobly trying to Do the Right Thing and Bring About Social Order, I enjoyed finding someone who would much rather not if he could possibly help it.
The next couple of books about Dougal were nearly as endearing, though not quite as plausible. A girlfriend was introduced, and Dougal stumbled in and out of one sort of problem after another, describing his utter terror whenever a gun was produced, his desire to avoid work, and his flexible morality.
An Old School Tie, the fourth in the series, is, I’m afraid, a letdown. For one thing, it’s a third-person narration instead of first-person, so we aren’t hearing Dougal’s familiar, drawling, cynical voice. For another, the story is bizarrely dull: Dougal’s old mentor-in-crime, James Hanbury, has gone straight and gotten married. His wife, Molly, has died immediately after their honeymoon, and James suspects that he himself may have been the intended suspect. He asks Dougal to help him investigate the crime (why he does this is never made clear) and the rest is a tedious jumble of unpleasant characters, barking dogs, cigarettes, and whiskey. This is also all mixed up with the elite alumni of Old Rosington, whose ties are pink and silver. It’s meant to be madcap and satirical, but in fact it’s confusing, implausible, and not nearly funny enough. We wind up envying Molly for being safely out of it.
Andrew Taylor has written something like forty novels by now, so I’m sure I can’t fault him for not knowing his business. The Dougal novels were his first, written in the 1980s, and perhaps he’s much more polished by now. But I must say I miss the original Dougal, willing to sell his soul for his own comfort and safety. Now, he made me laugh.