Off the Record
Recording tape and gramophones probably don’t sound like promising grounds for a novel, but in Off the Record the technology is the MacGuffin for a splendid little mystery, a story put together so deftly I read it a second time to see how it worked.
The setting is 1920s England. The First World War still haunts people who are now enduring the fading of the British Empire, the crumbling of social tradition. In the village of Stoke Haram, opinionated baronial Charles Otterbourne has a gramophone factory. Nutty genius Alan Carrington comes to him with a revolutionary new idea for recording sound. They meet but don’t mesh. Soon bodies are showing up all over the place, and detective story writer Jack Haldean, who has captained several other novels by Gordon-Smith, comes in to make sense of it all.
Gordon-Smith’s writing is quick and sure; her characters emerge as real people within a few lines. The period dialog is especially good, colloquial without affectation, and the historical detail, unobtrusive and precise, conveys a beautiful sense of the time before instant communication collapsed all our lives into a single moment.
Rereading the novel was a thorough pleasure. The plot is seamlessly assembled; Gordon-Smith, a devotee of Agatha Christie, puts the truth always there in front of you, manipulating emphasis and expectations to keep it all a surprise. The solution to the mystery, incorporating the technology that started everything off, ties up the whole story in a single satisfying knot. Off the Record should appeal equally to lovers of historical fiction and detective novels, and doubly to fans of both.