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Heirs of the Body by Carola Dunn

February 23, 2014 Leave a comment

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.

Carola Dunn

Carola Dunn

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.

For reviews of other books by Carola Dunn, see A Colourful Death and The Valley of the Shadow.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

A Colourful Death by Carola Dunn

December 17, 2013 Leave a comment

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.

Carola Dunn

Carola Dunn

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.

For reviews of other books by Carola Dunn, see Heirs of the Body and The Valley of the Shadow.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Valley of the Shadow by Carola Dunn

Valley of the Shadow Carola Dunn

I suppose it was natural that, as a child I should read Enid Blyton. This overlapped with the work of other authors like Arthur Ransome, A A Milne, and so on but, for some reason, The Famous Five seems to have stuck most clearly in my memory. What then are the primary characteristics? Obviously, as books written with children in mind, there’s a certain simplicity of language. Events are always “very peculiar” and, in response, the children would exclaim, “Golly gosh” which was strong stuff at the time. All the adults could say by way of expletives was, “Mercy me!” But more importantly, there’s always a strong sense of place. Many of the “jolly japes” are based in Dorset and there’s always scope for excitement because of the local tunnels and caves used by smugglers. Because the early books were written during World War II with the series continuing into the fifties and sixties, there’s a certain lack of professionalism about the local police officers. They were unused to the excitement usually surrounding our heroic five and tended to be slightly out of their depth. There was also a certain innocence when it came to dealing with issues of the day like race.

All of which brings me to The Valley of the Shadow by Carola Dunn (Minotaur Books, 2012) A Cornish Mystery. Although this is written for adults and set in the late 1960s, it nevertheless was like looking back to my early reading experiences. In making this comparison, I’m not intending to denigrate the quality of this book. As a story, it deals with what was, at the time, a sensitive issue and the pace of the plot holds up to the end. But there’s a real sense of both the time and the place captured on the pages. Perhaps more importantly, there’s an essential innocence about the characters that I suspect reflects memories of childhood or early adulthood. I should explain that Ms Dunn was born in England but then set off around the world, ending up in America. She’s now looking back to write historical mysteries. Locating this new series in the 1960s means she’s writing about people as she knew them. I’m not at all sure this is a method likely to result in historically accurate content.

Carola Dunn and two of the Famous Five

Carola Dunn and two of the Famous Five

Ah now this sets off the rabbit for the dog to chase. Of course there’s no obligation for any book to be “accurate”. Even if the location is a real-world city, the author can change the street geography to produce events critical to the development of the plot. So it is with historical novels. Since we’re into the word of fiction, the author is paying the game of describing events for the modern audience. Assuming the intention is entertainment rather than information, any fact can be tweaked to make it acceptable for modern readers. In this book, the theme is the plight of one particular Asian family from Uganda. Since we’re apparently set in the 1960s, we predate the formal expulsion order made by Idi Amin in 1972. But we’re into the late sixties which featured highlights such as Enoch Powell’s River of Blood speech. In the period following the race riots in Notting Hill in 1958, there were copycat riots in Birmingham and the Black County (sorry that really is the name of the area ) with a major riot in Dudley in 1962 as one of the more obvious tips of the iceberg representing racial tensions and active discrimination against immigrant communities. Reading this book is like putting on a pair of rose-tinted spectacles. The attitudes to race relations described in this fictionalised version of Cornwall seem to me completely unreal. Perhaps my life experiences are radically different from the author but, in a way, that’s why this book reminds me of Enid Blyton. Her world was full of blurred reality. Carola Dunn seems to assume an American readership could not take a book which admitted the extent of the racial tensions in England at this time.

Anyway, this is the third story about Eleanor Trewynn and her niece, Detective Sergeant Megan Pencarrow who dives into the sea and rescues a man immediately described as a “wog” and later as a “Paki” — generalised terms of abuse for anyone of different race. Yet these two momentary usages are the only occasions in which the pervasive prejudices are referred to. Thereafter, everyone is amazingly colour-blind and tolerant as our busybody Aunt with hidden Aikido skills sets off around the villages of Cornwall to track down what may have happened to the family of this man. It’s all very cosy with romantic questions raised every now and then about Megan, as smugglers’ caves are identified and searched. As is required in mystery adventures of this kind, the police are well-meaning but always several steps behind the heroic biddy. This is not to say the local constabulary, later assisted by a man from Scotland Yard, are incompetent. But they do need to be pointed in the right direction by our amateur sleuth. So after drinking lots of tea, we all get to shout “jolly hockey-sticks” as another adventure involving some running around and mild excitement is satisfactorily resolved. I was underwhelmed by The Valley of the Shadow. It’s very thin gruel to sustain a healthy reader.

For reviews of other books by Carola Dunn, see A Colourful Death and Heirs of the Body.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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