A Colourful Death by Carola Dunn
Carola Dunn is attempting a difficult balancing act in her series titled A Cornish Mystery (this was the second in the series, now being reprinted in paperback). At one level, the series is historical mysteries. I say that in the broadest sense of the words because fifty years is not a long period of time in numerical terms. Having lived through the 1960s, I can confirm it might just as well have been more than a century ago. The culture then was radically different from the culture that envelopes us today. In that respect, Ms Dunn has got the time and place right. Although I’ve only visited Cornwall a couple of times, I recognise the village mentality of the time. As is somewhat appropriate for the time setting, we’re also playing with a Golden Age format of mystery to solve. Although there’s a minor role for forensic science in the relevant deaths, none of the evidence supplied by the scientists is used to solve the crimes. As a police procedural with an old lady in satellite mode to offer helpful insights, the crime is solved by the application of intelligence. Perhaps more importantly, we’re allowed a clear view of the facts as they emerge. There’s a limited pool of suspects. Hence, from quite early on, it’s fairly clear whodunnit even though the motive remains more challenging until quite near the end.
Thus, A Colourful Death (Minotaur Books, 2013) appeals as an exercise in nostalgia both in revisiting a time long lost and a format of writing now potentially considered old-fashioned. In modern police procedurals, we’ve grown used to seeing greater realism with more gritty plots and all the expertise of the different police departments brought to bear in analysing the evidence and identifying the criminals. Back in the 1960s, life in the south west of England was somnolent. Although lip service was paid to the forensic skills of the Met and better equipped urban police forces, local Cornish officers preferred to accept the superficial explanations as true so they could get back to their young wives to resume the sexual activity so rudely interrupted by the commission of crimes. It takes the dedication of one or two professions to get the real work done.
The hub of the plot is Eleanor Trewynn, a character slightly more robust than Miss Marple, but in the same basic mould. She’s travelled the world, observing human nature. With the death of her husband, she’s now settled in Cornwall and has tuned into the local gossip mill which knows everything unimportant about everyone, and a few important things about those who matter for stories like this. We start off with Eleanor meeting artist Nick Gresham from the London train. When he gets back to his small gallery which was under the care of Stella Weller, he discovers his paintings have been vandalised by Geoffrey Monmouth. After an hour to cool down, he goes over to confront the man. As you might predict, he discovers the vandal dead on his studio floor with a knife in his back. The easy explanation adopted by the first senior officer on the scene is that Nick is the murderer. Fortunately, Detective Inspector Scrumble, ably assisted by Eleanor’s niece, Detective Sergeant Megan Pencarrow, take up the case and quickly realise it’s not as easy as first thought. We then get twin track investigations as Eleanor and the vicar’s wife talk to a range of people, while the police formally interview possible suspects. Thus, by different routes, our sleuth and the police arrive at the same result. The formal reveal at the end is a team effort to the solicitor of one of the deceased.
Because it’s fairly obvious who must have done it despite the few red herrings that get dragged across the trail, the interest lies both in the recreation of the time and literally observing the process of detection. So this is more in the spirit of an inverted crime novel than a mystery novel. There’s nothing wrong with this except the book lacks a little of the suspense normally associated for more formal whodunnits. All this leaves me with the conclusion that A Colourful Death is better than The Valley of the Shadow but that’s not great praise.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.