Heirs of the Body by Carola Dunn
Heirs of the Body by Carola Dunn (Minotaur Books, 2013) is the twenty-first in the series featuring (The Honourable) Daisy Dalrymple (Fletcher) and has us firmly back in historical times all wrapped up warm in what approaches the status of a cozy mystery. As to era, we’re firmly located in the Britain of the 1920s in which wealth and privilege were still hanging on by their fingernails. Thematically, we’re caught up in the problems of the primogeniture rule for succession to a title. In the days before the suffragette movement was alarming the horses on race courses and straining conversations over tea in country houses, titles passed down the male line. In the best regulated families, husbands would bear down on their wives on a regular basis and, in due course, lots of little heirs would populate the nurseries, thereby ensuring a smooth transition of the title and the lands entailed with it. Except not all households were successful with problems of fertility, lack of interest in sex, or worse, the production of female offspring only, blighting succession. It was at this point that lawyers with an interest in genealogy came into their own, delving into dusty records in colonies and other less likely places around the world, to find the nearest male relative who might be elevated to the ranks of the nobility. In this case, the current Lord Dalrymple has reached the age of fifty and, having spent his life in pursuit of butterflies and moths, decides the chances of catching an heir are remote. He therefore sets the wheels in motion to find the male with the best claim to the title and the estate that goes with it.
Meanwhile Daisy continues in domestic bliss with her husband who, breaking the cozy rules, is a senior police officer at the old Scotland Yard. This gives our heroine the perfect excuse to get involved in all the more interesting cases falling into her husband’s care. Indeed, she’s been at this so long, not only the younger officers but also the more senior officers of London’s finest are aware of her ability to make pertinent suggestions on whodunnit. This time, the family solicitor comes up with a list of four possible claimant to the title. They are an unpleasant South African who appears to be moderately wealthy thanks to his trade as a diamond merchant, a British man and his French wife who run a hotel in Scarborough, a mixed-race boy from Trinidad, and a Jamaican sailor — his pregnant wife comes to England to protect his claim since no-one is entirely sure where he is.
This starts well. There’s a very nice sense of the style and manners of the time with the stratification of social class ringing true. The interest is maintained as we begin the search for the heirs and first impressions as the early claimants appear are auspicious. Unfortunately, the central section loses it way. In part, this is a direct result from plot choices. In the classical detective story, we reestablish our core of series characters, meet the newcomers for this book and, usually no later than one third of the way through the book, the first body appears. This gives our heroine plenty of time to flex her mental muscles, decide what to wear for dinner, and solve the case in the library over a snifter or two. But this case is about succession. One of the claimants must think he has a poor chance of meeting the criteria for being the first male heir and so decides to eliminate the competition. The most amusing version of this trope is Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) in which the predatory Louis Mazzini works his way through the ranks of the D’Ascoynes.
Allowing for the film being somewhat over the top, this is completely free of tension as there are reports of “accidents”, or we see the donkey race to disaster, or the butterfly net of doom almost strikes. When we do get to a death, it appears to be natural causes. Although once you put it in context, it does look suspicious. Of course it heats up again as we come into the final bend but the feeling as we cross the line is that the criminal(s) is/are remarkably amateurish — this is just too cozy with very little of the killer mentality we associate with the British nobility. Having taken the decision to eliminate the competition, you would expect the villain(s) to be better organised and leave nothing to chance. Indeed, continuing in the ineptitude stakes, the professional police officer who married into this clan of noble eccentrics comes out of this book looking less than effective. Although we’re not supposed to blame him — he’s distracted — his failure to examine the key evidence is woeful. Perhaps he’s more on the ball in earlier books.
So Heirs of the Body ends up slightly ho-hum. It promises more than it delivers on the mystery front, once the evidence comes in, the question of the heir’s identity is easy to see, and the historical background is impeccable. So if all you want is a gentle outing into the lives of one of the larger British aristocratic families of the latter part of 1920s, this is the book for you. Presumably if you’ve already read the twenty books preceding this, you’ll want this if only to see what happens on the family front.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.