Oh Miss Porter! The Author Nobody’s Ever Heard Of
To my knowledge, at least, no-one has ever read her except me – somebody prove me wrong!
What sort of writer numbers their books One, Two and Three instead of coming up with proper titles? And who would deliberately go against all the traditional tropes of the mystery genre? I have to admit I’d never heard of Porter until recently but I love an overlooked gem, and her creation is a winner, albeit a disgusting one.
Porter was born in Cheshire in 1924, and having studied Russian, worked in British Intelligence. She didn’t start writing until her forties, and produced ten intricately plotted mysteries featuring the obese, selfish, incompetent, misanthropic, lazy and frankly unhygienic Chief Inspector Wilfred Dover and his sidekick Sergeant MacGregor. Dover is described as looking like a sweaty pastry man with thinning hair and ‘a small black moustache that the late Adolph Hitler did so much to depopularise’. He’s perhaps closer to Kyril Bonfigioli’s criminal art dealer Mortdecai (although not the Johnny Depp travesty) rather than a traditional cop.
The books are comical because Dover is not the only grotesque; the entire sphere he inhabits is an inversion of Agatha Christie’s cosy milieu, so the village where a maid goes missing in Dover One is a summation of everything townies find suspicious about the countryside. The village inn serves ‘good plain English cooking at its best’, consisting of ‘tinned tomato soup, congealed shoulder of New Zealand lamb which might have been cooked and carved in that distant country, soggy potatoes and bright green cabbage.’ The missing maid is no doe-eyed sylph but a gigantic frizzy-haired good-time gal, and her mother no tearful matriarch but a slattern who can blow the ash off her cigarette without removing it from her mouth. In this world even a posy of flowers purchased in Piccadilly is not sprayed with morning dew but with spit from the seller. We’re a long way from Miss Marple, and all the better for it.
In Dover Two the Chief Inspector manages to accuse three different suspects of murder before stumbling on the right solution, but at least Porter’s creation made it to a BBC radio series before vanishing.
There are also Porter’s ‘Hon-Con’ books, concerning a dim-witted reluctant spy who succeeds in his missions purely by accident. Given the preponderance of lesbian characters, Porter’s mystery-shrouded private life and another series of novels featuring man-hating Constance Burke and her female companion, one might draw conclusions about the author that provide her with a refreshingly unrosy view of males.
Her Dover short stories are collected in a single handsome volume which can be bought online for a pittance.