Public Eye was a long-running ITV series from the late-60s to mid-70s, starring Alfred Burke as the misanthropic loner Frank Marker. Unlike most other detective series of the era, it eschewed car chases and shoot-outs in favour of an often grim real world approach. Cross That Palm When I Come To It was the first of only two spin-off novels from the series and was written by Audley Southcott who, although a TV writer and producer, never wrote for the actual TV series.
The first thing that strikes you about Cross That Palm When I Come To It is that it’s pushing barriers that a TV series of that era wouldn’t dare. The first word out of Marker’s mouth – in fact, the first word in the book – is ‘shit’ and when the author drops the C-bomb several pages later you know that this is going to be much stronger meat than the TV series. And this from the writer and producer of children’s horse drama Follyfoot!
This opening barrage of profanity sets a tone that the rest of the novel doesn’t really commit to. It’s based on bits from a number of TV episodes, the first of which (from which the book takes its name) no longer exists in the ITV archives, so even if you’ve caught up with the whole of Public Eye on the excellent DVD series from Network, there’ll still be something here you haven’t seen before (unless you watched it in 1972). The beginning of the book, in which Frank Marker reluctantly accepts the job of acting as go-between for an insurance company and a gang of jewel thieves, is hard and gritty. The gang are an unpleasant bunch and the author spends much time outlining their moral corruption and how they’re as likely to betray each other as anyone else. However, it turns out to be the fraudulent insurance agent who’s the real joker in the pack, betraying both Marker and the gang and sending the former to prison for two years.
It’s here that the story unexpectedly switches gear. The gang that we’ve grown to know and hate, lovingly described in early chapters, are dispensed with in little more than a by-line and the narrative leaps ahead two years to Marker’s release from prison. You see, this isn’t really a novel about a jewel theft; it’s a novel about a man desperately trying to rebuild his career after a spell behind bars triggered chiefly by his own naivety. It’s a bit of a surprise that Cross That Palm When I Come To It switches tracks in this way (especially to anyone who’s never seen the TV series) but it makes a refreshing change. What could easily have been a rather dour detective novel suddenly becomes something else, and I for one believe that detective fiction is at its best when it’s about people rather than crime.
Moving to a boarding house in Brighton, Marker struggles with life outside prison. The world suddenly seems a scary place, full of deceit and acts of random violence; he’s robbed by a prostitute, victimised by a pair of hooligans and judged by his workmates in the only menial job that he can get. He longs to return to his life as a Private Enquiry Agent, but his confidence is scarred by his experiences and his faith in mankind – febrile at the best of times – is in tatters.
Eventually, Marker is drawn back into the detective business when his landlord asks him to find her runaway teenage niece. Through undertaking this task, Marker rediscovers his love – and his talent – for this kind of work. The book ends with our hero heading for Windsor to set up business as a Private Enquiry Agent once more. This happens quite late in the book and you might find yourself wondering if he’s ever going to get back to his old life.
I wanted to review Cross That Palm When I Come To It in its own right, without constantly harking back to the TV series, but it’s important to note that the events comprising this novel take place over an entire series of the show. There are elements that are missed out altogether for reasons of time, such as Marker’s awkward romance with his landlady Mrs Mortimer, but it’s a fairly slender volume and I think that would have just confused the plot. In all, I think Audley Southcott makes good use of the pertinent bits of plot from this era of Public Eye, weaving them into a fall-and-rise story that works really well as a novel aside from its parent show. Be warned though; the prose, the language and a lot of the references are very much of their time and there are bits and bobs in there that could potentially cause offense, but it has a certain nicotine-stained 1970s charm that sets it firmly in the higher end of the TV tie-in spectrum.
Sadly, Cross That Palm When I Come To It is long out of print, and you might have difficulty finding it, but copies frequently turn up on Amazon at very reasonable prices, so if this review has you intrigued, keep a (public) eye out for one.
Cross That Palm When I Come To It was published by Sphere Books (1974) currently out of print