Coffin a little too deadpan

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 August, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 August, 1993, 12:00am

CRACKING OPEN A COFFIN, by Gwendolin Butler (Fontana, $60). GWENDOLIN Butler goes in and out of fashion faster than flared jeans. That is rather a shame as she writes with a consistency many of her critics would do well to emulate.

Her simple style belies an ability to string readers along without condescension or tortuous plot machinations. That is not to say there is no intellectual challenge, it is just that regular consumers of detective fiction will search unsuccessfully for innovation or distinctive originality.

John Coffin, her down-at-heel hero, is resurrected from his literary grave once more. This time his deductive powers are required to solve a case that demands personal introspection as well as investigation.

He is the archetypal middle-aged gumshoe ungracefully noticing his virility disappearing as quickly as the money from his bank account to finance his divorce. His plummeting self-esteem is exacerbated by the attention his long-time girlfriend gets from younger admirers and his conviction that somewhere along the line he has been over-promoted.

Butler rather labours this introspective angst, but the case at the centre of the book, at least, fits nicely when the daughter of an old friend and colleague is half of a student couple who go missing. The boy involved is the son of a professor who has his own reasons for wanting Coffin to fail.

While suffering the inevitable cynicism of his rivals and the exaggerated respect of his subordinates, Coffin gets a powerful feeling someone is out to get him. However, his brooding paranoia suffuses the book without being entirely convincing.

Nevertheless, his brush with the women of a refuge for the battered, abandoned and abused, provides Butler with some real substance, but she only partly takes advantage of it. She allows Coffin to address issues like equality and civil liberties, but without any significant commitment or reappraisal of his own deeply held views.

How much do the women really know? What is their connection with the case? Lovers of the genre have every reason to be grateful to an author who remains faithful to her predecessors. Any number of clue-hunting seekers of justice could slot just as easily into this, or any of her previous tales.

The only complaint might be that Coffin's expose at the denouement lacks the dramatic force or theatrical suspense of the Londoner's more acclaimed and high profile partners-in-criminology.

All the ingredients are certainly here and, despite the fact that they are not cooked up into a gourmet meal (more spice might be useful in this respect), the whole is palatable enough to digest without too much difficulty.