Travelling with Tinniswood: Shemerelda

The evening of the Governor’s Ball.
Claret glow of dying sun.
Soft patter of wild duck on tidal creek.
Dolphin’s leap.
Shemerelda sat in her dressing room in front of her mirror.
Her dress was unadorned by flower or jewels.
She slipped off her shoulder straps and let it fall to her waist.
Her breasts stood out firm and full.
Leonard trod softly up behind her and gently powdered the tips of her plum-red nipples.
He pressed his mouth into her neck.
He cupped her breasts in his hands and stroked their proud shimmering flanks.
He pressed his loins into the pit of her naked back.
“Shall we, Shemerelda?” he whispered.”Shall we? Please. Please.”
Shemerelda turned to him.
She smiled.
She hooked up her shoulder straps.
That was all.
It was seven years before Peter Tinniswood published another novel. Shemerelda (or, more properly, Shemerelda, by the Incredibly Beautiful H. H. Washbrook, as told to…) appeared in hardback in 1981. I have no figures as to its sales, but it is significant that it did not receive a paperback edition.
Tinniswood had not been idle during those years. There had been I Didn’t Know You Cared as a sitcom, four series. There had been an adaptation of A Touch of Daniel for Radio 4. There had been a six part comedy serial for Radio 4, Home Again, about a father unexpectedly reappearing after walking out on his family twenty years earlier.
There had been something else for Radio 4 that would change Tinniswood’s career, and which would form his next book. But first, there was Shemerelda.
I have no sales information for any of Peter Tinniswood’s novels. I’ve already mentioned that Mog didn’t get a paperback release until the mid-Eighties, when it was adapted as a sitcom. The Brandon family novels all went into paperback, and The Stirk of Stirk, but there was no such release for Shemerelda, and sadly I am not surprised.
It is a very slim novel, only 156 pages. The majority of those pages are filled with single sentence paragraphs, to an even more extended degree than The Stirk of Stirk. The extract above is typical. It is short. It is sharp. Sentences without verbs. Staccato. Reading the book again took just under an hour.
In his comments to the Independent, attached to their on-line obituary, Tinniswood’s friend, fellow-writer and journalist and former writing partner David Nobbs referred to The Stirk of Stirk as semi-poetic. It’s certainly a description that would suit this book, though its subject matter is at heart considerably more prosaic. Tinniswood’s style is deliberately clipped and intensive, compressing experience into brief, rhythmic lines, isolating these lines to the importance of a single element.
Yet the approach doesn’t take the reader in, doesn’t absorb them into the heart of what is happening. Shemerelda is a beautiful, rich, lavishly adorned, stylish, cool, self-contained woman living a life of leisure and luxury in Rackham City, on the Atlantic coast of America.
Shemerelda is married to Leonard Tozer, rich, plump, damp, a Banker. Their relationship is formal and distant. Laverne Van Strijden, loud, angular, full of boasts about her many and variegated lovers, urges Shemerelda to take a lover of her own. She is introduced to the incredibly beautiful H. H. Washbrook,who has travelled far and wide. But it is the grizzled, stocky, scar-nosed Mirakel who asks her to become his lover.
They couple in a dirty, downtown, sparsely furnished hotel room. Shemerelda is filled with passion, but she, being completely passive, must wait for Mirakel’s infrequent calls.
In the meantime, a black limousine has tried to run her off the road and kill her. Unnoticed, it follows her everywhere. It holds the incredibly beautiful H. H. Washbrook.
Matters become complicated. Leonard’s private secretary tries to blackmail Shemerelda into becoming his lover. She dashes a glass of lime juice in his face. He is found dead, strangled. The Police suspect Shemerelda. Leonard, inexplicably, denies her alibi.
Mirakel tries to kill Leonard in a motor race. Instead he kills Milne, the Tozer’s chauffeur, who has had to substitute for the yellow bastard who is too scared to race (the Tozers also have a butler named Ransome: an in-joke).
Mr Van Strijden tries to manipulate Shemerelda into being his lover. If it will get her news of Mirakel, she agrees, though the affair is not consumated, for Mirakel appears and takes her away. They make love in passionate isolation for days, but Mirakel locks Shemerelda in each day. Is he a kidnapper, as the headlines say?
But no. It is a complicated plot. Leonard is ruined financially. At Van Strijden’s instigation he hired Mirakel to kidnap Shemerelda and, when the ransom is paid from her wealth, kill her. But Mirakel fell in love with Shemerelda and sought to protect her, in the face of threats to his life from Van Strijden.
And overseeing all, hired to mastermind this dastardy plan, is the incredibly beautiful H.H. Washbrook.
There is a twist. The good go free, the bad die, thanks to the incredibly beautiful H.H. Washbrook, though the motivation for this seeming switch in character – or else his book-long deception of the villains – goes wholly unexplored. And Tinniswood rips off his own ending to The Stirk of Stirk to close the penultimate scene, though it’s penultimate only by a three line final chapter, addressed kind of sideways to the reader.
What an odd book.
The problem with novels that are built on style rather than substance is that the appeal of that style, its effectiveness upon the reader, then becomes the only criterion on which the book can be judged. There is one Tinniswodian running gag, deployed at intervals during the book, about the cream of the cream of Rackham City being in fine form:
“Did you see the (game) last night?”
“You didn’t see the (game) last night?”
“I saw the (game) last night. It sure was good.”
The gag is repeated three times, about different subjects, though its last iteration is about Shemerelda’s plight and this ends, “It sure was bad.” As gags go, it’s not bad, a little simplistic, but it’s the only one of its kind, whereas in earlier novels Tinniswood might have as many as half a dozen such, thickening the pot, and with a greater significance when the twist/variation is employed.
But that’s about the whole of the overt comedy, far less even than in The Stirk of Stirk. But what if this was intended to be a serious novel, what if I am misreading it completely and Shemerelda was not intended to be funny at all?
If this is so, it would stand out in Tinniswood’s work as one of the few serious pieces he ever wrote. The point was that he was a comedy writer: even in the early Nineties, when he wrote and appeared in a short series of television documentaries about the North, as seen through his eyes and childhood, he took the Brandons with him on his tours to joke about things.
No, I’m forced to concede that Shemerelda is not a book I can recommend, and the extreme style that Peter Tinniswood adopted for this and its pedecessor is rather a dead end.
But this was not Tinniswood’s only book this year, and his second would transform his career, creating a character even more famous, and more memorable than Uncle Mort. But in due course I’ll be making the case that, rather than transforming Tinniswood’s career, his next publication derailed it, and there would be very little in the future that lived up to those first four novels.

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