1972. Families, mostly with teenage children, are staying in a posh hotel in Cornwall. A hotel porter is found poisoned. His last words implicate 'him' at the hotel. The police swoop on the fathers, each of whom appears to have secrets which might have made them targets for blackmail. But there is no real evidence and the police case soon becomes cold, even though another guest drowns in the sea after a drunken swim in the company of an unknown man.
Forty years later, Grant, one of the teenage boys at the time and now a solicitor, decides to take up the case, seeking closure, afraid that he might find that his mother, who was having an affair with one of the fathers, might have been implicated in murder. He travels down to Cornwall where he is scared by spooky happenings, including a child-like voice singing "Half a pound of tuppenny rice ..." He persists in his investigation, alienating his wife who feels that she is playing second fiddle to an obsessions and suggests that he moves out. The truth emerges when the person who knows most of the secrets gives him crucial information. At this stage there was a yawning credibility gap; why on earth was someone who was so desperate to conceal what she knew not only not destroy the evidence but go through a strange rigmarole to make Grant aware of it?
In the end, all is revealed, although for me the answers were almost as baffling as the clues and I am still in the dark about things that seemed really important but were left totally unresolved.
This is an ambitious first novel. Its ambition is revealed with a character list of 47 and at least one was missed out. This makes it impossible to adhere to the classic whodunnit formula: there are at least 19 potential suspects if the last word ('him at the hotel') narrow it down. I may be a thicker than average reader but I found it impossible to keep track of that many people. Indeed, the end of the book is much more in the thriller genre than the whodunnit.
More crucially, perhaps, with this sort of cast it is impossible for the author to flesh out the characters in any nuanced way. Instead, you get a few lines describing their backgrounds and mannerisms. He gives plenty of little details. Although he doesn't adhere to the writer's dictum of 'show don't tell' he does follow the rule that you cannot know too much about the peculiarities of your characters. This sometimes gave me the feeling that I was reading the author's character notes. If I had any feeling for the characters it was on a thoroughly superficial level; they tended to be stereotypes. This meant that I really didn't understand the complex motivations behind the mystery. I was left with the feeling that there were a number of loose ends that had not been tied up and that I wasn't really convinced that the characters I did understand would have done the things they did. There was a strong feeling of the author as puppet-master.
An intriguing aspect of this novel is the author's obsession with the music of the early 1970s. I suppose Morse has his Opera and Rebus his obscure rock bands. But music is centre stage in this book. Wherever anyone goes, there is music which, presumably, is always meant to mean something. At the showdown, the music (by Van der Graaf Generator) is used to convey a warning, or so the potentially paranoid investigators believe. As with everything else the level of detail is a little obsessive; twice a Beatles lyric (from Lady Madonna, the Beatles number 1 hit single in March 1968; anyone can do pedantry) is misquoted and corrected.
Despite the fact that two characters each had access to a Colt 45, it could be argued that this novel was closer to real life than most in the genre. There were loose ends, it wasn't always easy to understand why people did the things they did, there were a lot of potential suspects milling about the crime scene and the police ignored most of them. It reminded me of Hill Street Blues. But it is really difficult to bust a genre and a first novel is probably not the place to do it. I am sure this author will produce better work in the future.
May 2016; 287 pages
- Having reviewed over 1100 books on this blog, I have now written one myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. It is available on Kindle through Amazon. Read it and find out whether this critic can write. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57