The mail brought me a delightful surprise this past week: Deborah Crombie’s latest in her Kincaid/Duncan mystery series. (I had forgotten that I had excitedly pre-ordered it a few months back.) It’s one of the British police procedural series that I follow religiously, but patience is required for this one, because Crombie is not a speedy writer. This is #18 in the series, and #17 was published in February of 2017, so it’s been a long 31 months in between.
In A Bitter Feast, Scotland Yard Detective Superintendent Duncan Kincaid and his wife, Detective Inspector Gemma James, have been invited for a relaxing weekend in the Cotswolds countryside at Beck House, as guests of the family of Melody Talbot, Gemma’s detective sergeant. The Talbots are wealthy and somewhat notorious as the publishers of one of Britain’s major newspapers, and except for Duncan and Gemma and her friend Doug, Melody has been completely silent about the family connection so as not to influence her co-workers (for good or ill) due to her prominent family connections.
The weekend for which they have been invited is to feature a charity luncheon hosted at the Talbots’ home and catered by chef Viv Holland, whose current position as co-owner of a local pub doesn’t reflect her illustrious background as a Michelin chef. Lady Addie Talbot, always mindful of her own influence and desirous of helping her friends and protégés, sees this luncheon as an opportunity to increase the usually self-effacing Viv’s fame, and accordingly invites national food bloggers and restaurant critics; but this action sets some unexpected events into motion that will scar the day with tragedy and provoke additional crimes to cover someone’s tracks.
This was a somewhat subdued book in the series. That’s not to say it wasn’t thoroughly enjoyable, but it was a bit different in that Duncan and Gemma weren’t the principal cops on the case. You just knew, when the book opened with the prospect of an idyllic country weekend away for the entire Kincaid/James clan, that it was too good to be true, and sure enough a car accident puts Kincaid out of the picture before he can even arrive at the Talbot estate. When the investigation of the two people in the car that hit him turns up a finding of suspicious death, Gemma and Duncan both become involved in the solution of this and another, later crime; but because it’s not their turf, the lead is taken by a local inspector, and they are demoted to the role of helpers. Additionally, because of Duncan’s injuries he’s not his usual competent and capable self, distinctly shaken by the accident and its aftermath.
The mystery is a good one; I enjoyed the past-and-present details of the life of Chef Viv Holland, including all the delectable descriptions of the food she was producing, the cast of characters inhabiting her restaurants (Ibby, Jack, Antonia, Bea, and the charismatic but volatile Irishman, Fergus O’Reilly), and the complications of her personal life. Likewise, the disclosures about Melody Talbot’s parents, Ivan and Lady Addie, the picturing of their beautiful home with its Gertrude Jekyll-inspired gardens, and the sleepy autumnal setting of the golden Cotswolds is compelling and lends additional charm.
One thing that put me off a little: The book became particularly busy, with too much back-and-forth trading off of cars, duties, and childcare, because of the presence of the entire family. Although son Kit plays a somewhat pivotal role in this book, the constant need for Gemma or Duncan to find someone to watch Toby and Charlotte so they could go off and solve crimes added a lot of unnecessary detail, as did all the descriptions of places and activities pursued specifically to entertain the children, from zoos to ice creams to croquet. The story might have been less cluttered if the kids had all gone to the grandparents for the weekend, leaving Gemma and Duncan to enjoy their holiday unfettered and (later) to pursue their sleuthing. Of course, life is messy and cluttered and busy, so perhaps I am just reacting from the perspective of a single person without too much patience for this kind of thing!
Although this is not my favorite of Crombie’s series, it certainly stands up as a worthy participant, and is well worth the time. I just wish she were a faster writer; it’s a long time between books, and I miss Duncan and Gemma while they’re gone!
READERS’ ADVISORY NOTES: This is a great series for dedicated mystery readers whose preference is for detectives with whom they can become familiar and develop continuity and relationship. Both the personal and professional lives of these two are intriguing, and even more so for being lived together. Crombie’s usual habit (not seen in this one) of alternating the lead in each book between Kincaid and James keeps the series fresh. The mysteries are usually satisfyingly complex and mystifying, and maintain attention throughout. And for those whose preference is specifically the British mystery, you can’t beat Crombie, her surprising nationality as a Texan notwithstanding.
It was such an interesting experience for me to pick up the book Snobs, by Julian Fellowes. I have to confess that I am one of the few people on the planet who has never watched a single episode of Downton Abbey; a couple of weeks ago, however, I was scrolling around Amazon Prime looking to be entertained, and encountered a four-part miniseries based on a book by Anthony Trollope, from his Chronicles of Barsetshire series. “Julian Fellowes presents Doctor Thorne” popped up after I had watched a few other BBC productions, and although it is based on a Trollope book and set far earlier than the events of Fellowes’s book Snobs, there was an eerie similarity to the satirical tone set by Fellowes.
On the surface, this is a regular story about a woman who marries a man, regrets her choice, and looks around her for something else to alleviate the boredom. Edith Lavery, caught between eras, is the child of a socially ambitious middle class mother who hopes, through an advantageous marriage for Edith, to make it into the top echelon of British society. Edith, an attractive girl without any particular passions, life ambitions, or schooling, is drifting along, working in a low-paying clerical job and living in a frumpy apartment in the City. Despite being a young woman of 1980s and ’90s London, she wasn’t raised to believe she needed to be her own person or support herself indefinitely, and she cringes at the thought of a continued existence as a single woman of no means.
Then, a weekend stay in the country and a tourist’s visit to a “stately home” brings her to the attention of Charles, Earl Broughton, and suddenly she catches a whiff of what it would be like to step into the life of the future Marquess of Uckfield, with family estates in Sussex and Norfolk. To know all the “right” people and to be acknowledged by them, invited into their homes, accepted as one of them. Charles, while being a rather dull dog fixated on managing his estates and having his yearly shooting parties, is considered by society to be quite the eligible bachelor, and Edith carefully makes her play to ensnare this rather stodgy but not unappealing young aristocrat.
Four months later, having quickly exhausted all her inner resources (which were, admittedly, few) by playing Lady Bountiful to the surrounding tenants, running committees, and dutifully embracing the country life alongside her sharp-eyed mother-in-law, Lady Uckfield, and her kind but deeply stupid father-in-law, the Marquess, Edith’s eye is caught by a man completely different to her husband—handsome, flirtatious, sexually provocative, and flatteringly attentive—and she begins to consider whether she has made a disastrous mistake.
The thing is, though, this book is not entirely or even mostly about the surface story. Although the elements of a marriage made for all the wrong reasons are its ostensible reason for existing, the tale is a much more compelling one; the events of Edith’s and Charles’s lives are used as a primer for an explanation of the minute yet deadly intricacies of the upper echelons of English society. The narrator, an anomaly himself as an actor who has emerged from the aristocratic upper class and thus moves freely amongst multiple cliques, does a masterful job of seeing and explaining the nuances of each move made by the pertinent characters, from Edith and Charles to each of the true aristocrats and desperate social climbers involved in the story.
The one thing that irritated me about “Julian Fellowes presents Doctor Thorne” when I watched it was the bracketing remarks made by Fellowes, which, although they followed in the footsteps of Masterpiece Theater’s introductions by the eminent Alastair Cooke, came across as pedantic rather than creating a pleasant framework for each episode. Surprisingly, however, although the unnamed narrator of Snobs serves much the same function in breaking down and analyzing the manners and motives of all its characters, I didn’t have the same reaction to him, and in fact enjoyed and looked forward to his digressions.
This book had much the same effect, although longer and far more complex, as did Alan Bennett’s commentary on the Queen’s new addiction in his novella, The Uncommon Reader. Fellowes’s witty, sometimes acerbic take on social protocols among the British elite was spot-on. Anyone who has rank has status, and with status comes singular mannerisms, language and social morés far too subtle for the commoner to comprehend. But as someone who springs from the bosom of this class, Fellowes (and his narrator) are completely capable of subtle but devastating mockery alongside good-natured kindness and empathy, and their revelations intrigued me.
Continuing this occasional feature…
Barbara Kingsolver achieved her greatest fame with the book
I honestly like the least of her entire list—The Poisonwood Bible, nominated for a Pulitzer and multiple other awards. But before she wrote this serious tome, Kingsolver penned several shorter books that caught my imagination:
Taylor Greer grew up poor in Kentucky, with the dual goals of avoiding pregnancy and getting out. On her drive west to seek her fortune, she is unexpectedly “gifted” with a three-year-old American Indian girl, who is dumped in her car in obvious need of mothering and more. So Taylor’s plans change abruptly, and she puts down roots and begins to build a community to help her care for her new foster daughter, Turtle. This is the story of The Bean Trees; in the sequel, Pigs in Heaven, Turtle witnesses an event that has repercussions for her life with Taylor, exposing her to her heritage and her past. These two books are a wonderful combination of charming and heartfelt, with lots of humor but also with a serious message about the family you inherit and the family you choose.
The third book Kingsolver wrote right around the same time period is Animal Dreams, a love story, an environmental inquiry, and an exploration of Native American culture. I was captivated by all three of these books and have revisited them several times. If you are looking for short but intense fiction with an American southwest setting and eccentric characters, try any or all of these three by Kingsolver.
I featured the original covers here, because they are the ones with which I am familiar (and also, I really like them), but all three of these books have been re-released in trade paperback and are easily obtainable, if in a more bland, less culturally celebratory package.
I hadn’t previously read anything by Liane Moriarty, although several librarian friends had recommended her to me, so I decided to start with Big Little Lies, since the TV series stars some of my favorite actors and I’d like to have read the book before embarking on that.
I didn’t know anything about the book, except that it’s classified by some as “women’s fiction,” a category title I have always found insulting. Joyce Saricks, readers’ advisory guru, defines women’s fiction as consisting of “books written primarily by women for women, that feature female characters, and that address the issues women face in their professional and domestic lives.” I find the descriptor “women’s fiction” to be dismissive and ghettoizing. When men were the primary writers of fiction, it was all just fiction, whether literary, mainstream, or genre-based. Why do we need to use condescending terminology that puts female writers in a “less than” category?
It is true that the three main protagonists of Big Little Lies are women with issues (some of them dark): Madeline, Celeste, and Jane. It’s also true that this is primarily a book about white privileged people whose children attend private school. But it’s ultimately a story of parents acting badly, and it features the real lives of children, teens, friends, husbands, wives, second wives, and exes. And the interplay between all these characters, primary and secondary, is smart and witty, making the book completely engaging.
It’s also suspenseful, given that the pivotal moment (which is mentioned at the beginning and then built up to in timed chapters) is a death at the annual Pirriwee Public School Trivia Night, an annual fund-raising event. You know what happens, but not to whom, nor how, nor why. There are small glimpses fed to you in the guise of gossip shared with an unknown interviewer by various secondary characters at intervals throughout the book, which lend further tension as some get it entirely wrong and others come perilously close to guessing secrets they’re not supposed to know.
I loved the way Moriarty sets up the story—the countdown to the trivia contest, the fragments of gossip and commentary, the glimpses into all the lives involved in the broader story. But I particularly loved the entire array of characters, both main and secondary. This is a quintessential example of a character-driven plot, and although its stated theme is suspense, the real content of the book lies in understanding every woman portrayed here. The character development is fresh, intuitive and nuanced, and doesn’t stop with the first few moments of set-up on their personalities, but portrays complex, flawed people with real issues. Moriarty is equally good at capturing the quirks and personalities of all the children involved, and she seasons serious interactions with moments of humor and even hilarity.
I didn’t figure out the climactic moment ahead of time, and honestly spent the second half of the book hoping passionately that she wouldn’t kill off any of the people in which I had invested so thoroughly!
I have put three more books by Moriarty on hold at the library.
I’m usually more of a thriller or police procedural kind of mystery reader, with an occasional psychological plot thrown in to keep me thinking, but I couldn’t resist either the town setting or the engaging amateur sleuthing trio of Kate, Jack, and Sara in Jude Devereaux’s Medlar Mysteries, and decided to read #2.
The victim in A Justified Murder achieves the equivalent of being hung, drawn, and quartered; the nice little old lady Mrs. Beeson is discovered by her cleaning lady sitting at her dining room table, poisoned, shot, and stabbed! Who could hate this seemingly innocuous woman so much? And why does everyone in town seem determined to whitewash or downplay his or her own personal relationship with the victim?
After their last murder and some close calls with danger, Jack, Kate, and Sara decide they’re not going to go near this one, and stubbornly turn to their daily routines while trying to ignore what’s happening in town; but everyone else, from the sheriff to Sarah’s old nemesis (and Kate’s boss at the real estate office) to a strange man stalking them from afar, is determined that they will take it on and figure out who killed Janet Beeson.
The “triple murder” of one victim and the delving into her background for reasons was an intriguing beginning, but I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I did A Willing Murder. I felt like Devereaux took the character development of her protagonists to a point in the first novel, and then in this one, when we should have deepened our knowledge of the three detectives, we just got more of the same. We didn’t find out, for instance, anything substantive about Kate’s father, which is the sole reason she initially went to Lachlan to meet her Aunt Sara; we got a lot of flirty behavior from Jack but likewise not much depth; and Sara just kept getting mad and either locking herself in her room or taking out her anger on a punching bag with her boxing gloves.
As far as the mystery was concerned, there was a whole lot about the three protagonists protesting too much while continuing to follow up every clue from beginning to end. I would have respected them more if, at some point about halfway through the book, they had said, “Hey, let’s get real, we’re doing this,” and quit pretending they weren’t. Also, there were so many peripheral story lines involved, not to mention a kidnapping subplot, that it became confusing more than once. Someone would show up at the front door at 2 a.m., crying, and I would have to page back three chapters to figure out who this person was and where they fit into the puzzle of the town’s many involved citizens.
The book wasn’t bad enough to discourage me from perhaps reading her third when it comes out (and I did like the surprise ending), but if that one likewise ignores the expansion of character knowledge, that’s it for me. Half the motivation for reading a cozy mystery series is finding out more about the inner workings of your sleuth(s). I hope Ms. Devereaux figures this out.