Saturday, August 24, 2013

J. B. Priestley, Salt is Leaving (1966)

Our first two J. B. Priestley releases, Benighted (1927) and The Other Place (1953), have been among our most popular titles so far this year.  Joining them soon will be The Magicians (1954), and, because of the response the editions have gotten so far, we've acquired the rights to five more Priestleys.  I just finished reading the first of these, Salt is Leaving (1966).

I've now read five of Priestley's books -- still only a small fraction of his prolific output -- but based on this sampling of his works, I strongly suspect he never wrote a bad book.  He remains best known for his dramas, especially An Inspector Calls (1946), as well as his often nostalgic literary fiction, including The Good Companions (1929) and Bright Day (1946). But Priestley often branched out into other genres: horror (Benighted), weird & supernatural tales (The Other Place), thrillers (Saturn over the Water), and, in Salt is Leaving, a classic murder mystery whodunit.

Almost all of Priestley's novels were published by the firm of Heinemann, for whom he was one of their big three authors, along with Graham Greene and Somerset Maugham.  Though 'paperback originals' -- that is, books whose original publication is in paperback rather than hardcover -- are commonplace today, they were less so in 1966 and certainly not common in the case of authors of Priestley's stature. So when Pan Books managed to wrest Priestley away from Heinemann for the paperback original Salt is Leaving, it must have been a real coup for them.

1966 Pan first edition

The hero of Priestley's mystery is Dr Salt, who is desperate to leave the miserable industrial town of Birkden, where he practices as a GP. A middle-aged widower, somewhat irritable, and fond of cigars, whisky, books, and records, Salt has sold his practice and wants to head for tropical climes.  But Salt is not leaving yet.  Before he can go, he wants to know what happened to Noreen Wilks, a young patient of his who suffers from a rare kidney disorder.  She hasn't been seen for three weeks, and Salt knows that without her regular course of medical treatment, she could die.  The police aren't interested, assuming she's just another flighty young person who has run away, but Salt is convinced she's dead, perhaps even murdered. When her boyfriend shoots himself in the head, and another young woman and a rare bookseller both disappear as well, the plot thickens, but no one but Salt seems to want to do anything about it.  As Salt investigates, he finds himself threatened and discouraged on all sides, as seemingly everyone seems to want him to fulfill his original intention of leaving town....

1st American edition (Harper & Row, 1966)

I thoroughly enjoyed Salt is Leaving, though it is certainly not Priestley's best novel. Still, it's told throughout in his characteristic light, humorous style, and I quite liked the often-grumpy Salt, in whose love of whisky, pipe tobacco, classical music, and books one sees perhaps echoes of Priestley himself. Those who enjoy Priestley's other fiction, or who are fans of classic British murder mysteries, should find this one a good read.

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