Murder Most Foul

Before you even turn The Girls over to read the blurbs on the back or open to read the publisher’s description on the inside jacket, you know you’re in for a lovely, barbed treat. The cover illustration is by Edward Gorey and that means you can expect sly wit and unusual mayhem.

Susan and Janet have lived a harmonious and very busy life for almost a decade near a picturesque English village doing picturesque things to stock their odd little shop in town. They keep free-range chickens and bees, sew and cobble.  The store is filled with their fresh eggs; jams, preserves, and chutney; honey combs; clogs; home-made aprons and cloth belts; their prize-winning elderflower wine–and even labor-intensive goat cheeses.

The two women have a busy and apparently satisfying life until Susan goes off to Greece to find herself and something unusual finds Janet: a one-night stand that leaves her pregnant.  It’s her first time with a man, so that’s either luck or misfortune, how she and Susan react is worthy of a miniseries.

Bowen is absolutely brilliant when it comes to charting the highs and lows of an intimate relationship, the swift changes of mood minute-by-minute as well as over months and even years.  He finds comedy there, and tragedy too.

The writing throughout is rich with color in descriptions of flowers, shrubs, flowering trees, do-dads and knickknacks, and the narrator is like a deadpan story-teller trying hard not to smirk because she knows you’re going to be surprised and doesn’t want to give anything away.  I had to read passages aloud to my spouse because they were so amusing, as when Bowen writes that “the sound of raindrops on the window was like hundreds of old gentlemen rustling the pages of the Financial Times.”

At times you may feel like you’re in wacky P.G. Wodehouse territory: the adventures of an escaped pig which will surely make you laugh aloud.  At others, you’re entering the realm of Patricia Highsmith where the quotidian is most definitely going to be exploded.  I was also reminded of Stella Gibbons’ satirical Cold Comfort Farm, but Bowen has his own voice here and his own style because his narrator is so wonderfully intrusive and even challenging.

Special kudos have to go to the book designer: The Girls isn’t just a pleasure to read, it’s a distinct pleasure just to hold in your hands.  Readers should be grateful for the publisher’s mission to reprint forgotten novels that deserve new audiences–and do so with elegance and style.  This is must read for anyone who’s a fan of British fiction, crime fiction, and comic stories set in supposedly bucolic towns. ★★★★★ 

Lev Raphael has reviewed books for The Washington Post, The Detroit Free Press, Jerusalem Report and several public radio stations.

“The Game She Plays Can Turn Deadly”

Siena Sterling has combined some time-tested fiction tropes in her new quasi-suspense novel: the fish-out-of-water, posh country house gatherings with some kind of accident, the femme fatale, and a woman worried she’s not good enough for her lover. The results are uneven despite the surprise at the end.

It’s 1980 and after a bad breakup, Nicola leaves benighted Buffalo for Paris but is  easily swayed on board her flight by a charming Englishman, James, to spend time with him in the south of France.  She’s so naive and unworldly that she wonders if there’s a bakery in his village because one of her goals in life is to eat a flaky croissant.  Sterling misses a chance to offer readers something special when Nicola and her boyfriend visit the southern French town of Uzès and there’s no description of its cathedral, the duke’s castle, or the lovely arcades. 

The pair go off to a country manor in England to spend a shooting weekend with James’s friends where Nicola is astonished and humbled nonstop. His friends all went to Cambridge together!  How does she know which fork to use at dinner!  Brits can be snide!  Why hasn’t she seen the cook!  Three-course meals are exotic! The hosts will someday have titles of nobility! They already have servants!

But for all her cluelessness, Nicola can somehow imagine the most attractive woman in the group would be more fitting in a “salon entertaining French philosophers and Russian novelists.”  That seems too sophisticated an observation for Nicola the way she’s been written.

As for the femme fatale, she’s repeatedly called beautiful and stylish, but she comes across as a run-of-the-mill narcissist, so whatever schemes she has in mind (remember the title) are painfully obvious.

Jealous of this woman’s acrobatic skill during a stupid parlor game after dinner, Nicola actually jumps onto a glass table and humiliates herself despite being uninjured amid all the broken glass.  That reaction makes sense, but she’s so shame-bound and clueless through the book that it feels like overkill–and even worse, she’s not the only hapless female in the book.

The English shooting weekend is marred by someone getting shot (of course), and there’s also a mysterious rich German present who’s so quickly whisked off-stage you wonder why the author bothered.  A second shooting weekend up in Scotland is more dramatic, but it takes way too long to arrive and there’s a clichéd taunting speech by the book’s villain.

The book’s title is a partial misdirection and that’s where the surprise comes in which is arguably the book’s best moment.  Unfortunately, the prose is bland, the settings aren’t vivid enough, and the characters lack depth.  For an unforgettable English house party novel, try Ruth Ware’s In a Dark, Dark Wood or Isabel Colegate’s classic The Shooting Party.  Both are tremendous reads.  ★★

Lev Raphael was the longtime crime fiction reviewer for the Detroit Free Press and has also reviewed for the Washington Post, Jerusalem Report, and several public radio stations.  Guests on his interview show included Erica Jong and Salman Rushdie.

Dark Objects is a Solid Police Procedural

Soon after a body is found at a bizarre and brutal murder scene in London, we discover what the title of this police procedural refers to.  The dark objects are the “overturned and sometimes overlooked” things at a murder that may explain what happened.

However, one of the objects laid out in ritual fashion near the victim is anything but overlooked.  In fact, it’s a blaring message.  This object is a book about how to “read” murder scenes, written by Laughton Rees, the police commissioner’s long-estranged daughter.  Rees is a criminologist with “almost preternatural abilities to observe, process, and recall information.” In her university lectures, she only uses cold cases or solved cases, but she’s pulled into investigating this murder case at an ultra-chic, multi-million-pound home because of that book.

The discovery of her book opens up a whirlpool of grief and misery because years ago, her father led a high-profile investigation whose suspect ended up killing her mother.  And she saw it happen.  Rees blames her father, rejected all his offers of connection and has become obsessive compulsive to cope with her trauma.  She’s a deeply sympathetic character because it seems that her dark past “always catches up with her and swallows her whole, no matter how fast or how fast or how far she runs from it.”

Rees’s “partner” in the investigation is the resonantly-named inspector Tannahill Khan, but he’s not nearly as interesting as her or the sleazy reporter, Brian Slade, who will do anything to get a story with long legs into the tabloid he writes for.

The book’s strength is the detailed and fascinating police work and the focus on Rees’s suffering and attempts to stay stable, though a few things get in the way, including the slow pace.

It seems obligatory these days that any major figure in a mystery or TV crime series is the parent of a troubled teenager and Dark Objects checks off that box in spades. 

The writing could also have been more polished to avoid various kinds of repetition and lines like this one: “Tannahill watches, his brain trying to catch up with what just happened.” Then there’s the awkward and unattractive mix of fonts and spacing at various points. 

None of that truly damages the book and the fault lies with the editing and design, not the author.  A bigger issue is the trick ending with a wildly unbelievable confession. 

All the same, filled with biting social commentary, Dark Objects has enough for police procedural fans to enjoy on a few hot summer nights.

Lev Raphael was the long-time crime fiction reviewer for The Detroit Free Press and is the author of ten crime novels.