The Avid Reader: Escape the rain with a murder or two

For the Ledger-Transcript
Published: 9/16/2021 11:57:02 AM

I thought I would be writing about water. Then it started to rain – again. I have to confess; I am a bit tired of water. Better to put off writing about water and escape into a murder or two.

Elly Griffiths came to my rescue with “The Postscript Murders.” Bless her.

Last year, after a very successful run of penning the Ruth Galloway series, Griffiths wrote a standalone. One of the outstanding characters introduced in that book, “The Stranger Diaries” was Detective Sergeant Harbinder Kaur. Harabinder is the only gay Sikh Detective in West Sussex. She is in her early thirties, lives with her parents, and is quite miffed that very little interesting crime actually happens in her part of England. She is a fun character and events in her part of the world are about to change.

Enter Peggy Smith, a 90-year-old who resides in an assisted living apartment, who is a master at thinking of interesting ways to murder people. Elderly people have time to think about these things. Over the years, Peggy became a murder consultant to crime writers who affectionally dedicated their books to her.

Natalka Peggy’s caregiver, on a regular visit, finds Peggy dead – and the death doesn’t feel natural to her. Natalka suspects murder because of a business card she finds in Peggy’s apartment. “Mrs. M. Smith. Murder Consultant” is the title of the card. Then Natalka finds a post card with the cryptic message “We are coming for you.” This is enough to go to the police, talk to Harbinder, and convince her to attend the funeral to scope out the mourners. Peggy’s neighbor Edwin, a zesty 80-year-old, and Benedict, an ex-monk who now owns a coffee shop, attend with Natalka and they encounter assorted characters worthy of investigation. The trio all agree something is not right and begin to reconnoiter. Harbinger is still not really convinced, until a masked gunman shows up in Peggy’s apartment, while Natalka and Benedict are there to explore, and takes one of Peggy’s murder books and leaves. Now Harbinder is drawn in and the chase is afoot. But don’t forget these three amateur sleuths. They are in the thick of it, and are the most fun characters that I have read in a long time! They pursue one clue after another, find more bodies, wind up in Aberdeen, Scotland, at a literary festival and eventually find themselves in serious danger.

Harbinder finally solves the case, but what a way to get there! Griffiths, as usual, keeps a snappy pace, provides us with characters so believable that they could live next door, and writes such great dialogue that it was very easy to keep reading until the book was done. As a reader, my one hope is that not just Harbinder but Natalka, Benedict, and Edwin will be back for another adventure – they are too good and too much fun to be in a standalone.

Once we get attached to characters in a book, readers always desire further adventures. We are a demanding lot and authors, I am sure, have their fill of us writing letters (or columns!) asking for “just one more – please.”

Hannah Dennison had better deliver. I have always been happy to read her Honeychurch Hall series, so when “Death at High Tide: An Island Sisters Mystery” came out I got it right away. This is the first in her new series featuring two sisters, Evie and Margot. Evie’s husband just died and her sister Margot, a jet-setting Hollywood producer, has come to England to offer emotional support. Finding that her late husband has left Evie financially destitute, except for a decrepit hotel on remote Tregarrick Rock, one of the Isles of Scilly off the coast of Cornwall, the sisters go to the island to investigate.

There is intrigue, and the eventual murder – which the sisters must solve. In doing so they uncover generations of falsehoods, a treasure or two, and what being sisters really means. Yes, a cozy mystery to be sure. But one that again has good character development, a very surprising ending, and leaves us wanting another – preferably sometime soon.

Honestly, I cannot write a column about whodunits without including a recently read, republished volume from the Golden Age of mystery. John Dickson Carr developed the Sir Henry Merrivale Mystery Series beginning in 1934. It was republished in 2020, and I just finished it. This first in the series is “The Plague Court Murders.” Plague Court, a crumbling ruin that has been in the Halliday family for generations, is the eerie setting for this mystery. The current owner, Dean Halliday, is under the belief that the ghost of Louis Playge is haunting the estate. Halliday invites Ken Bates and detective Inspector Masters of Scotland Yard to come with him to this cursed place and investigate.

When they show up, they are greeted by Halliday’s fiancé, a “brittle” blonde, his aunt, Lady Anne, who apparently hates him, the fiancé’s brother, a supercilious young man of uneven temperament, and a retired military officer who flouts his superiority and blusters at the drop of a hat. This group is gathered in the abandoned house because they are planning to exorcize the ghost with the help of a psychic named Roger Darworth. Certainly, this man is a fraud, but the group believes in him and is convinced that he is the real deal, has given him money, and now waits for the resolution to the haunting by the malevolent spirit.

Darworth locks himself in an impenetrable stone building to communicate with, and ultimately banish, the evil presence – but instead he is murdered! Yes, the best of locked room mysteries. There are no clues, the door and windows are bolted from the inside, the murder weapon has vanished, and all are stymied. Naturally, the only one who can solve this heinous crime is Sir Henry himself.

Sir Henry is not a likable sleuth. He is brilliant, but vulgar and the only reason he shows up is to show off. And show off he does when he finally solves the crime. Frankly, it is worth putting up with Sir Henry just to get the mystery solved because we really don’t have that many locked room mysteries these days, and the plot is very good. Remember, the most enjoyable ones do come from that Golden Age. These are, notably, Carr’s specialty.

Is it dated after all these years? Yes, and no. The characters reflect English mores before WWII and this does date it to some extent. However, as I noted, the plot is strong, and Carr certainly is a master at establishing atmosphere and a sense of the occult. He also wrote in as many gothic twists and turns as he could.

From a historical perspective we know that Carr based Sir Henry on a combination of Mycroft Holmes and Winston Churchill; and this established the character of the sedentary curmudgeon detective. Modern examples being Dr. Gideon Fell (also a Carr character), and my favorite – Nero Wolfe.

Dorothy Sayers, a powerhouse writer of that era once indicated that, “if you like being deliciously frightened into fits” this is the book to do it. Of course, she also said, “you must willingly abandon yourself if you are to enjoy it.” Really, that is often the case with mysteries, but that is also why we read them. We can abandon ourselves to the story, often expect to be deliciously frightened, and thoroughly enjoy ourselves in the process.

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