The Frozen Shroud by Martin Edwards
The Frozen Shroud by Martin Edwards (Poisoned Pen Press, 2013) A Lake District Mystery 6 is an intriguing trip down memory lane for me. Being old enough to have lived through a part of what some historians would have us call the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, there’s always a nostalgic resonance when I pick up a book like this. Although set in contemporary England, and specifically in the Lake District, a picturesque area in the North West which I know reasonably well, the essence of the book is instantly recognisable. This is what we might reasonably call a middle class murder, albeit one shading towards the upper than the lower reaches.
Daniel Kind, our amateur detective, is one of these academics who’s made the transition from bookish don to television personality. Not for him the swanning around Oxford, emerging briefly from library stacks to vouchsafe a few words of wisdom to reluctant students. He’s been beamed into people’s living rooms, pontificating about this and that with his cut-glass accent, good looks, and incredible command of his subject matter. Ah such are the joys of the cult of personality. Better still, as the son of a senior ranking police officer, he comes equipped with the interest and skills to be an investigator. You can’t ask for a better stereotype than this. Also lurking in the foreground is DCI Hannah Scarlett, a reasonably senior police officer who worked with the aforementioned celebrity’s father, and now runs the cold case department in Cumbria (given the customary weather conditions, that’s a good department to run). She’s also middle class and, of course, going through the usual relationship angst that afflicts women who are trying to balance career with a “happy ever after” relationship. Naturally, once this pair overcome their immediate social problems, they are made for each other.
In this case, the investigative relationship is slightly better balanced than usual. When detective fiction was first setting off, we had Sherlock’s genius described by his sidekick John Watson. As a fictional ploy, this gives us an Everyman to follow around in the footsteps of the Great Man to be amazed by his brilliant insights. Hannah Scarlett as a potential partner is no dummy and, given the right circumstances and a little more ambition, she could easily rise to the highest levels. She’s very comfortable in the presence of our academic celebrity and not at all phased by the status of those whom she must investigate. Between them, they are inspired by the idea of arriving at a result which represents “justice” as an abstract ideal. This particular hamlet has a history which involves an unsolved murder where the battered face of the victim was covered by a blanket (the shroud of the title although there’s a different type of shroud that puts in an appearance later in the book). So the academic historian is off to trawl through the local records while the modern replication of the murder falls to the police. Except, of course, there’s no such thing as coincidence. By the time we have three deaths with the faces of the battered victims covered by a blanket, even the most dimwitted would see a connection. The problem, therefore, is to explain what links a death almost one-hundred years ago, with two deaths in the last five years.
From this you’ll understand this is playing with the Golden Age conventions. It has a pastoral setting in a relatively remote part of the English countryside, thereby creating a limited set of suspects. The whole is tightly plotted as a puzzle which the reader is invited to solve as our amateur and professional detectives pursue their investigations. At every stage, we’re able to observe the facts as they emerge and to understand the deductive processes involved in analysing those facts and arriving at a reasonable whodunnit solution. The only feature which distinguishes this book from the classic novels of more than fifty years ago is the amount of psychological depth invested in the characters. We’re given enough information to be able to understand not just the detectives, but also all those who are involved in the investigation. Whereas the classic Golden Age book simply set out to pose and answer a puzzle, this sets out to explain all the mysteries including who everyone is. This does not, of course, change the end result. Peace and order is restored to the British countryside so all is well with the world once again. For these purposes, we can overlook the dead bodies and the social and economic hardships caused by the murders. Bad stuff happens, even in idyllic countryside.
I suppose, having been an academic in a previous life, I’m predisposed to like an academic as the male protagonist. I recognise the type. In this instance, the resolution of the puzzle is consequently pleasing because it arises through the application of scholarly skills. It’s academic archaeology unearthing the clues in the past. I confess to being pleasantly surprised by the way the different motives overlapped through time. The common denominator linking the murder is easy to see. But understanding the precise mechanisms at work is more challenging. There’s also quite a satisfying link between the central mystery and the turmoil in the female detective’s life. No-one is immune from the insecurities she feels — it’s always difficult to leave the past behind and stay positive. Put all this together and The Frozen Shroud is a great success. It contrives to preserve everything that made the old puzzle mysteries such a joy to solve, it adds a very good police procedural element, and says interesting things about the people involved.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.