In Ngaio Marsh’s Death at the Bar, Inspector Roderick Alleyn is called to a small Devon fishing village, where a well-known barrister has been murdered over a game of darts. The village is remote, separated from the outside world by a tunnel through the cliff, and only those staying at the village inn, the Plume and Feathers, would have had the means to launch an attack on Luke Watchman, taking his annual holiday with friends.
The crime is carefully set up, with plenty of motives established in the first fifty pages. The rest of the novel is a painstaking dissection of who stood where, who said what, and in what time-frame. Was it one of the two men that Watchman had named as his heirs, the painter Cubitt or the actor? The mysterious fat Irishwoman who also painted? Or the pub landlord’s sulky son Will? This is as close to a police procedural or an episode of CSI as the 1930s gets, both detailed and with plenty of twists, causing readers to double back on themselves more than once. Cleverly done, and still enjoyable to this day.
As a side note, the Guardian had an enjoyable article at the weekend on the gulf between town and country life as portrayed in television. Just the thing for people who have been snowed in for much of the week.
Devon, this week, for A Cursed Inheritance and Kate Ellis’s DI Wesley Peterson is investigating the death of a crime writer, who has been re-examining a family massacre that took place twenty years ago at Potwoolstan Hall. The writer, Patrick Evans, is found dead in the grounds of the Hall, and as Peterson begins his investigation, it seems that everyone has something to hide, and that more than one guest at the Hall, now run as a New Age healing centre, has not been entirely truthful about their identity.
DI Peterson’s wife, Pam, resentful of the amount of time her husband is spending on his work, is exchanging emails with an archaeologist friend of theirs, Neil, who is in the States, at one of the first 17th-century settlements there, and one of the settlers came from Potwoolstan Hall. A trail of letters from the early settlers gives clues to a much earlier mystery, but how is this connected to the present murders?
There’s a lot of plot in this, if not two books’ worth, and I was left wondering if the American element was a completely separate book that hadn’t quite panned out. The tangle of relationships in the main story becomes ultimately confusing and once the murderer was revealed, the other plot elements were done and dusted in a couple of pages. One two many secret aliases, but otherwise a gripping read.
It is perhaps a little embarrassing to be reading the final volume in a series, without having read the preceding 20, but this week I’ve been reading Hazel Holt’s “Death is a Word”, the final Mrs Malory mystery. It is set in the fictional town of Taviscombe (a blending of Tavistock and Wiveliscombe?) in Devon, and Sheila Malory is a retired lady who lives with her dog and cat. (Though only the cat gets a look-in on the cover – wasn’t the dog photogenic enough?)
Sheila’s old friend Eva Jackson has recently retired to live close to her, yet her efforts to put her husband’s old papers in order seemed marred by bad luck. Despite the interest shown in Eva by another recent arrival to the area, Donald Webster, Eva is more concerned with her son and his partner, Patrick. Sheila, and her old friend Inspector Morris, turn to detection one last time to find out why tragedy has followed Eva.
This trips off the page like some fleet-footed insect, beetling on to the next food source – it’s a light read, but there’s a sense of lived experience (in particular, I’d lay money on Mrs Holt having served on a village hall committee or equivalent). It takes a long time to get going, and the first murder is delayed until almost the halfway point, which lessens the suspense rather than increasing it. It seems churlish, however, to quibble, as it was the author’s final book before her death in 2015. I now have the previous 20 to read, as well as her biography of Barbara Pym.