The late British writer Joan Aiken is best known as an author of supernatural children’s stories, but her adult tales are worth seeking out too. This thriller is like a Formula 1 car, racing along at breakneck speed with many twists on the way. It’s a period piece, written about fifty years ago and set in a world my parents would recognise, when a train from London to Penzance took nine hours and you could avoid rush hour traffic jams in London.
Just as TV’s Mad Men showcased the US advertising industry in 1960s Manhattan, “Trouble with Product X” sheds light on their counterparts in London. Product X is a wonderful new perfume, expected to take the market by storm. Certainly, manufacturers Gay* Gal think so, and ad agency Salmon and Bucknell is delighted to win the account. It’s all hands to the pumps and Martha, a young copywriter, is despatched to Cornwall to produce ads for TV. She’s accompanied by colleagues, cameramen and assorted hangers-on, including a creepy client and his unpleasant chums. The trouble with Product X, as she rapidly discovers, is that the formula has been lost – or has it?
Tension rapidly mounts as the rich and beautiful are revealed to be feckless kidnappers and murderers. Luckily, Martha finds some good eggs on whom she can rely, including stalwart colleague Tom and a community of brusque monks with hearts of gold.
The book is a fun, quick read, and could almost be approached as historical fiction given that the events take place five decades ago. Joan Aiken worked as an advertising copywriter herself, and writes amusingly of the flattery employed to sell unprepossessing products. There too many twists and turns in the plot to describe, but all are believable (just!), and the book is well-written. Hats off to The Murder Room for republishing it for the Kindle. Note that old paperbacks are available for pennies on Amazon under another title, “Beware of the Bouquet”.
*The word “gay” is used a lot in the book in a very old-fashioned sense, basically describing a desire to go drinking and dancing.