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  • Writer's pictureJulie Mackin

Four for Death

On Sundays I am going to be posting about murder mysteries - could be a book, a series, even a tv show. But I thought this would be a fun way to experience those Sunday Scaries!

One for sorrow,

Two for mirth,

Three for a wedding,

And four for death

One Good Turn & When Will Be Good News by Kate Atkinson

Twelve Drummers Drumming by C.C. Benison

The Black Country by Alex Grecian

I love a magpie, they are such beautiful and funny little creatures. Seeing one, not so good, two or three, great, but four, well if you see four together then dark days are on the way. These birds aren't found around me, but I have seen them many times on my travels in the UK, though I myself have never seen four and have yet to be caught up in a British murder mystery. And the British like their murder mysteries and not just on the telly, the number of murder mysteries set on the island is pretty impressive. I am a British murder junky; I’m not sure what it is about the genre that gets me; is it the setting (I am an Anglophile), is it the characters (damaged men are always romantic), or maybe it’s the murders (everyone loves a good murder). Whatever the reason, there doesn't seem to be an end to what has come out. The following books are all older, you should have no problem finding them at the library.

The first two books are from Kate Atkinson and feature our most damaged former detective turned PI turned retired nosy nelly, Jackson Brodie. I almost hesitate to categorize these books as mysteries, Atkinson is such an amazing storyteller that you don’t really care what happens as long as she keeps writing. Atkinson is excellent at linking stories, presenting you with different viewpoints and then dropping little bombshells all over the place. And like all four of the books I read, the setting is almost as important as the story. In these two books, Brodie has left Oxford and is currently hanging around Edinburgh and as a setting, I am not sure Atkinson could have asked for better. In her hands, Scotland exudes a sense of mystery and swirling fog that makes the searches for murders all that more atmospheric.

In One Good Turn, Brodie ends up trying to help a timid mystery novelist who finds himself in strained circumstances. And Brodie finds himself in to the orbit of tough detective Louise Monroe. In When Will There Be Good News, we start with the story of a young girl who witnesses the brutal murder of her mother, brother and sister and then flashes forward twenty years to her new life and her mysterious disappearance. Time has passed since they saw each other last, but Brodie and Monroe find themselves working together, along with a spunky orphan, Reggie Chase (guessing we might see her again).

When Will There Be Good News is a better murder mystery than One Good Turn. One Good Turn is a great story and it introduces us to Monroe and explores Brodie’s complicated relationship with his girlfriend Julia, but unlike Case Histories, the first in the series, and When Will There Be Good News, the mystery isn’t as fully realized and the subsequent resolution is less developed. When Will There Be Good News has a fully flushed out mystery and one that Atkinson cleverly resolves for us. The one thing I did not care for in this book was the introduction of Brodie’s new wife. I understand why Atkinson needed her for plot reasons, but I feel like the end result of the wife’s actions could have been achieved without adding an additional impediment to the possible relationship between Brodie and Monroe. But that would be my only real criticism. I am taking a break before I read the fourth (and last) book in the series, as I know I will miss these characters when I’m finished.

Twelve Drummers Drumming by C.C. Benison is the first in a series and introduces us to Tom Christmas, the vicar of the village of Thornford Regis. Father Christmas (get it) has recently moved to the village after the murder of his wife to start a quieter, safer life for himself and his daughter. Of course, you know that can’t happen, it never does in these sleepy little villages (unless the vicar is Geraldine Granger, then it is just hilarity ensuing) and about six months into his tenure there is a murder of young teenager in the town. Tom begins to poke around and try to determine who might have killed the young woman – could it be his mysterious verger? And what happened to the previous vicar, who up and disappeared one day never to be heard from again?

As with all new series, the first book spends a lot of time introducing us to the town and its characters. I am ok with that in the first book but from there on out, the stories need to move a long with the actual detecting. But I am interested to see how the author deals with the repercussions from this first murder and how it impacts many of the characters. I found the story suspenseful enough (full disclosure: I never figure “it” out before the end, I just don’t) and I like that Benison made the murderer a central character; I appreciate it when the author doesn’t present a minor character I can’t remember as the culprit. Benison uses an epistolary format to set up each chapter, beginning it with a daily letter from the vicarage’s housekeeper to her mother. I understand that the author is using it to advance the story, but it can be a bit clunky. If Benison set the story in the 1950s, I could see how it would work but not in the present day. I can’t believe that Madrun wouldn’t call her mum every morning to share the latest gossip. It is 2012, I am sure even Madrun has a cell phone.

Finally, I just finished the second in the Scotland Yard series by Alex Grecian. The series deals with newly formed “Murder Squad” of the Metropolitan Police, tasked with solving the increasing number of murders in London. The Yard introduces us to Inspector Day, Sergeant Hammersmith and Dr. Kingsley, our forensics expert. More full disclosure: with all my historical fiction, be it television or books, I willingly suspend disbelief much of the time, especially when it comes to the introduction of forensics, so I will not nitpick about the fact that we are imposing 21st century police theories on detectives from the late nineteenth century. If I did I would have to give up Ripper Street and I love Matthew Macfayden too much for that.

The next in the series, The Black Country, takes Day, Hammersmith and Kingsley out of London and into coal country of the Midlands where a husband, wife and their baby son have gone missing. The town constable requests the Murder Squad’s help in locating the missing inhabitants and our heroes are off to lend assistance. The town is sinking into the tunnels dug below it, the locals don’t seem too keen on having the Londoners there to help, there is a snowstorm on the way and half the town is sick with some mysterious illness. And with all this and three unaccounted for individuals, Day and Hammersmith only have two days to solve the case. It’s going to be a whirlwind 48 hours.

And it is; Grecian’s pacing is good and the story pulls the reader right in. I flew through the book, but after I put it down, questions start popping up. It felt a bit rushed. I’m not sure why Grecian only gave his character’s two days in the town since it created an unnecessary urgency. And there were elements that took away from the actual mystery of the missing family. Grecian has a mysterious Scottish stranger, Campbell, in town claiming to be an ornithologist but who is adamant that little Oliver Price be found. And then there is (another) mysterious stranger hiding in the woods. All of this mysterious stranger’s actions are written in italics, a clunky device similar to Madrun’s letters. While the Interlude that explains the link between the two men is fascinating, I have no idea why it was needed to further the story. In fact, I think Grecian had the makings of an amazing book right there and he threw it away as an aside. It took away from the major story, especially since neither character was responsible for murder. And after so much build up, the eventual confrontation between the two men is so anticlimactic.

The same could be said for the entire story; all the buildup and then basically a few pages to wrap the whole thing up and send everyone back to London. Grecian didn’t even resolve a number of loose ends (Grimes, the Rose family). And a major plot, the illness of half the town, though needed to help Day determine the location of our murdered child, was never really explained. As for the murderers, the reader doesn’t get a full explanation of why they did what they did.

The Yard, the first book, was compared to Caleb Carr’s Alienist and I can see why. The second book started out with greater similarities and I think had the potential to get there, but it was never fully flushed out. And similar to the Preston/Child series, I think he had some elements of the supernatural to play with but he never really emphasized them, just mentioned them in passing. Grecian was going great, I was involved, I was intrigued and but then it just ended. It was like his publisher said, hey, can’t be more than 375 pages long, thanks. I could have had another 50 pages for sure (maybe one more day).

Of course, I am ready for the third book in the series which is coming out later this year. Grecian is a great writer and even if the mystery in Black Country wasn’t as developed as I wanted, the characters of Day, Hammersmith and Kingsley are and they are a really captivating group. Grecian has picked a fascinating time period and he has a lot to work with. I look forward to see what else he does with this crowd.

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