Coffin, Scarcely Used

(A Flaxborough Mystery Book 1)

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Pub Date 22 Feb 2018 | Archive Date 07 Mar 2018

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In the respectable seaside town of Flaxborough, the equally respectable councillor Harold Carobleat is laid to rest. Cause of death: pneumonia. 

But he is scarcely cold in his coffin before  Detective Inspector Purbright, affable and annoyingly polite, must turn out again to examine the death of Carobleat’s neighbour, Marcus Gwill, former prop. of the local rag, the Citizen. This time it looks like foul play, unless a surfeit of marshmallows had led the late and rather unlamented Mr Gwill to commit suicide by electrocution. (‘Power without responsibility’, murmurs Purbright.) 

How were the dead men connected, both to each other and to a small but select band of other town worthies? Purbright becomes intrigued by a stream of advertisements Gwill was putting in the Citizen, for some very oddly named antique items…

Witty and a little wicked, Colin Watson’s tales offer a mordantly entertaining cast of characters and laugh-out-loud wordplay.

In the respectable seaside town of Flaxborough, the equally respectable councillor Harold Carobleat is laid to rest. Cause of death: pneumonia. 

But he is scarcely cold in his coffin before  Detective...

Advance Praise

What people are saying about the Flaxborough series -

“Colin Watson wrote the best English detective stories ever. They work beautifully as whodunnits but it's really the world he creates and populates ... and the quality of the writing which makes these stories utterly superior.”

“The Flaxborough Chronicles are satires on the underbelly of English provincial life, very well observed, very funny and witty, written with an apt turn of phrase ... A complete delight.

If you have never read Colin Watson - start now. And savour the whole series.”

“Light-hearted, well written, wickedly observed and very funny - the Flaxborough books are a joy. Highly recommended.”

How English can you get? Watson's wry humour, dotty characters, baddies who are never too bad, plots that make a sort of sense. Should I end up on a desert island Colin Watson's books are the ones I'd want with me.”

A classic of English fiction... Yes, it is a crime novel, but it is so much more. Wonderful use of language, wry yet sharp humour and a delight from beginning to end.”

“Colin Watson threads some serious commentary and not a little sadness and tragedy within his usual excellent satire on small town morality and eccentricities.”

“Re-reading it now, I am struck by just how many laugh-out-loud moments it contains. A beautifully written book.”

“As always, hypocricy and skulduggery are rife, and the good do not necessarily emerge triumphant. Set aside plenty of time to read this book - you won't want to put it down once you've started it!

“Colin Watson writes in such an understated, humorous way that I follow Inspector Purbright's investigation with a smile on my face from start to finish.”

“If you enjoy classic mysteries with no graphic violence and marvellously well drawn characters then give the Flaxborough series a try - you will not be disappointed.”

Editorial reviews –

“Watson has an unforgivably sharp eye for the ridiculous.” New York Times

“Flaxborough is Colin Watson's quiet English town whose outward respectability masks a seething pottage of greed, crime and vice ... Mr Watson wields a delightfully witty pen dripped in acid.” Daily Telegraph

Arguably the best of comic crime writers, delicately treading the line between wit and farce ... Funny, stylish and good mysteries to boot.” Time Out

 “A great lark, full of preposterous situations and pokerfaced wit.” Cecil Day-Lewis

One of the best. As always with Watson, the writing is sharp and stylish and wickedly funny!” Literary Review

"The rarest of comic crime writers, one with the gift of originality." Julian Symons

 “Flaxborough, that olde-worlde town with Dada trimmings.” Sunday Times 

What people are saying about the Flaxborough series -

“Colin Watson wrote the best English detective stories ever. They work beautifully as whodunnits but it's really the world he creates and...

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ISBN 9781788420136
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Average rating from 164 members

Featured Reviews

An out of the park home run in the classic crime genre. Mr. Purbright is an absolute gem.

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First published 60 years ago in England, the Flaxborough Chronicles feature Inspector Purbright and the inhabitants of the town Flaxborough. In this first book of the series, Purbright is looking into the mysterious death of man who seems to have left his house in the middle of the night and been electrocuted. Could he have actually been climbing the pylon for the electrical lines in his slippers? It doesn't make sense, and the longer the investigation goes on, the stranger things become. What do a newspaper editor, a doctor, an undertaker, a lawyer, and a broker have in common? With conflicting accounts from those closest to the deceased, interviews with the housekeeper that show she believes in ghosts and supernatural beings, and pressure from the Chief Constable and the Coroner's Court to wrap things up, it seems that Purbright may never find out what really happened and why. With smiles and apologies for the inconvenience, he still manages to question everyone involved and slowly put together a picture that is not what anyone would have suspected.

There are death and suspicions to deal with, but there are also many humorous points in the book. Sometimes it is the words or actions of the characters, but at others it is simply the writing. For instance, the newspaper's owner is described as a man who "spoke only one-sidedly, as though half his lips had been sewn up to prevent waste of words and body heat." And readers learn that the doctor's "head was perched on the great promontory of his chest as though it had separate existence and might tumble off if it strained forward any further." Descriptions like that create a vivid mental image and a sense of the farcical. Which of these individuals should readers take seriously as suspects and which are simply there for comic relief? Perhaps they are both.

Readers who enjoy Miss Marple and mysteries set in small English towns full of eccentric residents will welcome having this series drawn to their attention.

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I would like to thank Netgalley and Farrago for an advance copy of Coffin Scarcely Used, the first of the Flaxborough series of police procedurals, originally published in 1958.

The novel opens with the death from a heart attack of Councillor Harold Carobleat and Inspector Purbright nosing around to no avail. Six months later Carobleat's next door neighbour, newspaper owner, Marcus Gwill is electrocuted and this time Inspector Purbright is seriously investigating as it's murder. What he uncovers is the meat of the novel.

I thoroughly enjoyed Coffin Scarcely Used which is a humorous cozy from a bygone age with a good, if fairly transparent to modern eyes, plot. It is a straightforward third person narrative from Purbright's point of view so the reader knows no more or less than he does. I found it quite easy to guess some of the angles and twists but it has some clever touches I didn't see.

The humour comes from the arch tone of the writing, the suspects' verbal fumbling for answers and Purbright's assessment of them. It's all very gentle and well bred so clever as well. I suspect that the characters' names also have humorous references but I'm not smart enough to work them all out.

The novel is very firmly set in 1950s middle class England so the Chief Constable has trouble suspecting Gwill's friends of wrongdoing as they're not those kind of people. Purbright, on the other hand, has no problem with it but he's the suspicious type. There are some lovely period gems like builder Jonas Bradlaw believing that his television set rather than his personality is what has attracted a series of young live-in housekeepers.

Purbright is not, perhaps, the smartest detective, or so Mr Watson would have the reader believe, but he's acute enough to work out and solve this, his first, murder. As befits the period and tradition there is no mention of his life outside the investigation as his role is to propel the plot forward. I like this approach as it makes a change from my more usual fare of character centric crime fiction.

Coffin Scarcely Used is a good read which I have no hesitation in recommending.

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Excellent! A throughly enjoyable mystery .

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This was a very entertaining English mystery with a great setting--a kind of minor faded seaport that doesn't even boast a local gentry. The book is quite witty and charming, the mystery adequate. All in all a very enjoyable read with a humorous set of characters

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Thank you to NetGalley and Farrago for the advance digital review copy.

I first read this a number of years ago and also recall the television adaptations. I was very pleasantly surprised to find how much I enjoyed re-reading it. Although firmly rooted in the English countryside and social mores of the late nineteen fifties, this murder mystery has stood the test of time pretty well.

Mainly this is due to Chief Inspector Purbright whose sterling qualities and shining honesty make him timeless. He has no truck with social position and deftly and subtly elicits information with a twinkle in the eye and a touch of irony on the tongue.

Colin Watson was for many years a reporter in East Anglia and knew well the workings of small town elites. The humour displayed here is gentle but clear-eyed.The writing and characterisation are so good that it matters little that the central mystery is not difficult to work out.

A most enjoyable and entertaining read.

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This is a charmingly amusing British mystery which takes place in the 20th century. Purbright is the primary detective. His boss, Harcourt Chubb, is totally ineffective and only gets in the way.

In this mystery, a number of older men are dying. They all seem to know each other, and be connected in some kind of loose way. Of course, it takes place in a small, English village where everybody knows everybody.

What is the most fun about this book is the dialogue. Purbright is droll and self-effacing. He sees the irony in situations and people. Anglophiles will enjoy this series. It borders on the cosy, but in a sophisticated, not sappy way. There's aren't any quilts, cats or apple pies cooling on the window ledge. The wit is quite original, and you'll find yourself chuckling. The ending was particularly humorous.

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This is a captivating who done it! The twists and turns keep you guessing. There is a list of interesting characters.

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As soon as I read this book's description, I thought of one of my favorite English towns, Midsomer. Charming and quaint on the outside, but worth your life if you live there. Flaxborough, the setting for Coffin, Scarcely Used seemed like it could be a sister town for Midsomer, though so far there have only been 2 deaths in 6 months.
The story is definitely an ode to days gone by since Colin Watson's book was published in the 1950s, which explains the much gentler language, class distinctions, and character interactions. When a man dies of a heart attack and then his neighbor is electrocuted, Inspector Purbright becomes suspicious and begins interviewing friends, co-workers and family members. Mr. Watson perfectly captures the feeling of living in a small village where everything appears proper and idyllic on the outside, but underneath secrets, jealousies, lies and even murders bubble to the surface.
The story is told with humor and the characters are extremely well written. I have yet to meet a mystery set in a small English town that I didn't like and Coffin, Scarcely Used was no exception. The book title alone had me smiling and the unique characters were a delight. If you like cozy English mysteries, I would recommend this book.
Thank you Farrago and NetGalley for the digital copy to read and review. While looking into other books he had published, I discovered he died in 1983. Luckily for lovers of this type of book, his words and works live on.

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Requested this as part of my quest for more cozy crime series and it's a good one. Originally published in the 1950s, these are being reissued. It's a gentle (as in don't expect gruesome details of gory violence) police procedural set in a sleepy English town with an interesting detective and some nice split pov stuff which means that the reader knows more than the police do. I'd happily read more of these.

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Thank you to the publisher for offering this series. This novel is a wonderful old-time mystery with eccentric characters and a well-drawn protagonist . In addition the word-play and satire are very funny.

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I thoroughly enjoyed Coffin, Scarcely Used. It is exceptionally well written and a decent mystery to boot.

Originally published in 1958, this book introduces Inspector Purbright of the Flaxborough police. Flaxborough is a (fictional) small coastal English town where outward respectability conceals Untoward Goings-On. The discovery of a second body, this time a murder staged as a suicide causes Purbright and the equally admirable sergeant Sid Love, to investigate. They are a very engaging pair, with Purbright as a seemingly slightly hapless, polite investigator, and the whole thing is a pleasure to read.

It is decently, if slightly implausibly, plotted. The characters are well drawn, with pointed wit but genuine thoughtfulness, so that although it is genuinely funny in places, it has an essential believability and insight into the character and mores of the time which make it a very involving read as well as just an entertaining one. It's perhaps a bit like a much less donnish Michael Innes or a 1950s version of Simon Brett in tone. I marked this little exchange between Purbright and Mr Smith, the local bank manager which gives a flavour of the style:
'"We should be glad to have your help, sir…"
Mr Smith inclined his head and continued to register delight. "Anything we can do, we shall only be too pleased."
"…in a somewhat delicate matter," Purbright added, and the tiniest flake of frost settled upon Mr Smith's manner.'

If you like that, you'll like the book. I like it very much, and I'm looking forward to catching up with more of Inspector Purbright, whom I haven't read before. I'm grateful to Farrago Books for making available and introducing me to a third series of excellent but nearly forgotten books which are very well written and entertaining, the others being Miss Seeton and the Bandy series by Donald Jack. All are warmly recommended.

(I received an ARC via NetGalley.)

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I love vintage mystery and I can't seem to be able to get enough of these good oldies. "Coffin, Scarcely Used" has an unique, pacy plot that is thoroughly entertaining. What's better is having clever humorous remarks here and there to lighten the heaviness of reading death and murders. The prose and language do need a little time to get used to but not at all an issue to me. In a way, this is a classic "British" kind of read- elegant, witty and refined in many different aspects.

Thank you Netgallary and Farrago for the generosity of giving me a chance to preview "Coffin, Scarcely Used" before the official re-release date.

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Reminds Me Of Sherlock Holmes With A Little Columbo Mixed In

This is a superbly written and witty mystery, which has a deeply woven plot. How does Detective Inspector Purbright go about finding the reason behind the death of several of the town’s so-called upstanding citizens? What secret were they hiding? Why are people sneaking around in the night?

If you like dry, Holmes style mysteries and humor you will enjoy the dialog, the cast of characters, and the convoluted plot. Although not my usual choice of detective mystery, I enjoyed this book, but it did take a little while for me to get in the rhythm of the dialog. I received a free, advance copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for my unbiased review.

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The British detective series is one of my favorite genres, and this one is a gem. Inspector Purbright, his cohorts, and even some of the suspects gave me many "laugh out loud" moments. The plot was interesting, the characters engaging, and I am looking forward to reading more from Colin Watson.

<a href="" style="float: left; padding-right: 20px"><img border="0" alt="Coffin Scarcely Used (Flaxborough Chronicles, #1)" src="" /></a><a href="">Coffin Scarcely Used</a> by <a href="">Colin Watson</a><br/>
My rating: <a href="">4 of 5 stars</a><br /><br />
I have a new series to enjoy! Mr. Watson had a gift for sharp-witted dialog and engaging characters that I'm looking forward to seeing again in the next book. Some of my favorite offerings from just a couple of pages:<br /><br />- He found the inspector examining the plaster statuette of a yellow-haired Venus, petrified into Art while apparently picking a corn.<br /><br />- The Chief Constable shook his head and devoutly wished the world were a great dog show with policemen having nothing to do but guard the trophies and hold leads.<br /><br />- ‘You’re surely not afraid of being unfrocked or disbarred or something,’ said Mrs Carobleat, warily testing the almost red-hot handle of a teapot that contained, paradoxically, lukewarm tea. <br />‘We coppers never quite reconcile ourselves to living in a perpetual draught of uncharitable thoughts.’<br />‘That’s what comes of being such a suspicious lot yourselves.’ She spooned sugar evenly into both cups without asking if Purbright took it, added milk and poured the tea. She took a packet of cigarettes from the pocket of her suit, lit one, and pushed the packet across the table. ‘Now then, what are you after?’ she asked, as if Purbright were a small boy suspiciously anxious to wash up.

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Witty, flippant, gently poking fun at the English middle class, I love it! This was first published in 1958 and it was fun to see the setting before the workings of the modern police force and before technology used today.

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Originally published in 1958, Coffin Scarcely Used is Colin Watson's first Flaxborough mystery (of 12). Introducing Inspector Purbright, whose placid and mild surface belies a solid deductive mind, the first Flaxborough mystery has Purbright and colleagues trying to solve the bizarre electrocution murder of a local newspaper owner.

The series, and indeed the author, were unknown to me previously. The reissue of the series by Prelude/Farrago with new covers is due to begin with this, the first book in the series, on 22 Feb, 2018.

This is a wickedly funny, very gently written and imagined tale. It is a murder mystery and police procedural, true (with bonus murders, even), but first and foremost it's a wry skewering of village life and social commentary. Every character is precisely drawn and every seemingly random description written with such unerring humour and precision that the whole is awe inspiring. The dialogue is spot on, the plotting slowish but in every way germane to the tale. This is a book to slow down a bit and savor; there are subtleties and humor that must be thought about.

There were a couple places in the book where I, as reader, wondered why in the world the author included something he'd written, only to shake my head later and think 'Well played, Mr. Watson, well played'!

The book never slides into 'mean-ness' or ridicules the stereotypes of which it makes gentle fun. The book is genuinely funny, and surprisingly very little dated for having been written over 60 years ago.

100% top shelf pure unadulterated clean classic murder mystery. Very light language (occasional 'damn' or 'bloody'). No graphic content.

Four and a half stars. I -really- enjoyed this. Heartily recommended!

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Originally published in 1958 these are being re-released. This is a well crafted British mystery, and while its a bit dated it still holds its own. Detective Purbright and Love keep you moving along in this mystery while they slowly uncover the details of murder in the sleepy little town of Flaxborough.

The characters are well done, and the tale has a bit of whimsy to it as well as interesting detective work. I read so many modern tales that its interesting to see how things were done with out the forensics we rely so much on today.

I'm glad they decided to republish them, its interesting to read how so many things have changed yet remain the same. This is an interesting witty mystery that will have you smirking and turning pages.

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A tautly written mystery with a nicely drawn cast - another strong recommend in which the conclusion (at least for me) makes little to no sense but the novel itself gets by with a wink and a smile. Also on the plus side, we get the cozy satisfaction of a smaller town murder enlivened by the post-war freedom to frankly involve sex and drug use. The best of both worlds!

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Many laugh out loud moments in this classic English mystery. Absolutely loved this book. Found it hard to put down and just wanted more. Wonderful setting descriptions allowed one to feel like they were there. I really just did not want it to end.

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A wry satire of small-town English suburbia - engaging and funny with some surprisingly sophisticated writing. Very entertaining, a good vintage find.

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It's great to start a new series by reading the first book and Farrago has made this possible by releasing the first three Flaxborough mysteries from the beginning. I had not met Colin Watson and Detective Inspector Purbright before and reading this book was a treat.

Wikipedia and other online sources have good information on Colin Watson and the Flaxborough series so there is no need to go into them here.

"Coffin, Scarcely Used" is odd and a bit twitchy and different from most other series of the period in that it puts sexual innuendo right out front. What exactly was the relationship between the wealthy widow Carobleat (silly name) and her neighbour, the recently murdered publisher Marcus Gwill (many of the names in Flaxborough are silly)? What is the significance of the marshmallows?

DI Purbright and the massive Sergeant Love push and poke around and uncover an immoral and criminal enterprise involving rare antiques. that surely startled, and perhaps shocked, readers. My only question is what happened when particular antiques became too popular.

I received a review copy of "Coffin, Scarcely Used: A Flaxborough Mystery Book 1" by Colin Watson (Farrago) through It was originally published in 1958 by Eyre & Spottiswoode, London and has been republished several times prior to this 2018 Farrago edition.

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A “gently-paced” police procedural indeed! I thoroughly enjoyed trying to untangle the twisted strands of Colin Watson’s “Coffin, Scarcely Used.” It was my first introduction to the thoughtful Purbright, the sharp witted Love, and Chief Constable Chubb, but it won’t be my last.

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I received this book free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

Farrago Books is re-releasing the Flaxborough Chronicles by Colin Watson. Book 1, Coffin Scarcely Used, was first published in 1958. Set in a small village in England, this detective story is a delight.

The first death, that of Harold Carobleat, a wealthy local businessman, was suspicious only in that the funeral was so understated as to be a non-event. However, months later, the bizarre possible suicide of Harold’s neighbor triggers an investigation by the low-key detective, Inspector Purbright. Aided by an eager (and naive) young policeman, Purbright doggedly pursues leads that don’t add up, convinced that things will eventually fall into place. He’s certain the “suicide” was a murder and is determined to prove it. Although others in Carobleat’s circle are either frightened, threatening, or both, and although it’s clear more deaths will follow, there isn’t the building tension of “catch the villain before he strikes again.” Purbright is methodical. And very entertaining. His patience and gently paced investigation swept me along.

The character sketches are ironic and the tone of the book is humorous, despite the underlying violence. It isn’t gory and sadistic. It’s almost. . .quaint. But not quite cozy.

Although I don’t think it was written as a historical mystery initially, it belongs to its time period and, being more than fifty years old and dated in a good way, I’m counting it as historical.

If you enjoy clever writing and puzzle solving, Coffin Scarcely Used is a terrific introduction to this series. I’m eager to read Book 2.

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What an amazing discovery of this delightful book by Colin Watson, and how wonderful to learn there are more where this came from.

This is an old-style British police procedural with good, solid detective work that takes place in the respectable seaside town of Flaxborough in 1957 or 1958. It is a little gentler and more slow-paced than today's non-stop-action thrillers, but that does not mean it is in any way lacking in suspense, complex plotting, well-developed characters, or a seemingly endless supply of ingenious ways to die.

Prominent citizens of Flaxborough are dropping like flies, and it falls to Detective Inspector Purbright and his team to figure out what is going on. Suicide? Accident? Murder? There are clues aplenty, but they don't always lead in the right direction. And just when you think you've got your suspect, he dies.

The ending is a surprise, believable but unexpected and a marvelous lead-in for the next book in the series.

And if nothing at all happened in the storyline, the language alone would be worth a read. It is droll and dry and funny, sometimes laugh out loud funny. I often found myself doing a double-take at some particularly outrageous turn of phrase, or just stopping to read a sentence or paragraph over and over just because the wording was so devilishly clever.

I received a copy of Coffin Scarcely Used from NetGally and Farrago Books. I loved it, and am on my way to read Bump in the Night, the second book in the series, right now.

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Classically British! A delight. Like watching a clever British detective series on Britbox. Filled with humor and English village eccentricities.

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A witty and entertaining whodunnit with some nicely done twists on the usual. I highly enjoyed reading it and would definitely recommend it to anyone looking for a story that pulls them in and keeps them up reading long after they should have gone to bed. Well done!

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