I was intrigued by the title of this delightful book. My curiosity was soon satisfied by learning that the herring of the title is of the red variety, and the apprentice is one keen to learn the principles of being a detective.
Ethelred Tressider is a lonely author. He writes books under three names: a detective series set in rural England; romantic novels featuring a handsome surgeon; and historical mysteries set in the time of Richard II and Chaucer. Among the many delightful aspects of this wonderful novel are the ways in which these books and their characters, as well as the process of writing, infiltrate the story. Ethelred has an agent called Elsie, a determined woman who cracks the whip and urges the rather gentle, unambitious Ethelred to churn out his regular, moderately successful, titles, rather than to write the great work of literature he is keen to produce.
The event that kick-starts the plot is the disappearance of Ethelred's ex-wife, Geraldine. A car that she had hired is found abandoned on West Wittering beach, with a childish suicide note – written in terminology that seems suspicious to the constable who arrives at Ethelred's nearby flat to tell him the news. Ethelred has "seen (and written) worse cliches in crime fiction", but assumes that the policeman "read nothing but P D James and had higher standards". There are plenty more little games with the crime fiction genre, its authors and various styles, to follow.
Elsie decides that she and Ethelred will find out what happened to Geraldine, a woman that Elsie has no reason to like – in fact, she dislikes her intensely. Ethelred, however, has his own agenda, and although he allows the forceful Elsie to accompany him to interview Geraldine's sister, bank manager and assorted other associates, there are other matters that he wants to pursue without interference.
The first part of the story is narrated by Ethelred, but soon Elsie appears, in a different font (about which she is typically sarcastic), to relate events from her perspective. She's a very keen herring seller's apprentice – or is that what she is? Who is selling the herrings, and who is the apprentice, are two of the many intriguing questions that pervade the text.
L C Tyler writes exceptionally well: his prose is light, economical, yet conveys subtle and real emotions beneath the humorous, brisk surface. There are so many neat, and sweet, recognisable insights as the plot races on. As it does so, some of Ethelred's characters take on a life of their own, "writing" to the author in the styles of well-known crime fiction novelists (very amusing if one is a bit of an addict, as I am), to Ethelred's bemusement. Ethelred reveals more to us as the book pans out – having warned us at the outset that some of his herrings will be red, and that he will only reveal some elements gradually, we are never quite sure where we are. But his father becomes more of a dominant figure, and although it is not difficult to work out the bare bones of the "real" story of Geraldine's disappearance, the end, when it comes, is as satisfying as it is sad.
THE HERRING SELLER'S APPRENTICE is a wonderful book. It is one of those books that transcends the genre of crime fiction and speaks to all readers. I was completely absorbed in it, totally enjoying my sojourn in its multilayered, trippingly written, disciplined, and astutely observed world. Bravissimo!