‘I’ve never heard of a don who played Sherlock Holmes.’
In September I reviewed the first in Kel Richards’ C. S. Lewis series, The Corpse in the Cellar (2015), set in the 1930s, which sees Lewis playing the amateur sleuth. But this previous novel as well as the one under discussion today strive to be more than just murder mysteries and theological discussions take place between Lewis and the series’ narrator Tom Morris. In the first novel these discussions focused on the existence of God, whilst this time with death on Tom’s mind (read more below), the discussions between him and Lewis centre on whether there is an afterlife or not and what it is like. What I was looking for particularly in this second novel was a more complex mystery and also for the theological discussions to be better embedded into the plot.
The Country House Murders (2015) initially seems to do this starting in a much more dramatic way. Tom fears he will shortly be arrested for murder and therefore writes for Lewis’ help (known as Jack in the book, a name he went by in real life). Tom has been cataloguing the library of biscuit manufacturer Sir William Dyer, yet murder strikes one day during afternoon tea, leaving Constance Worth dead by cyanide poisoning in her slice of fruit cake. Constance, who is known for her icy stares, is snobbish Lady Pamela’s cousin, who in turn is Sir William’s wife. Also at the event are the Dyer offspring, Will and Douglas, the latter of whom has a fiancé Stephanie Basset, known as Stiffy. Points for all those who noticed the nod to P. G. Wodehouse (a writer who is referenced in different ways throughout the novel). Uncle Teddy, a maverick biscuit experimenter rounds off the party.
The local policeman, Inspector Hyde (a recurring character from the first novel) has his sights on Tom as the killer, based solely on the fact that he was sitting closest to Constance. A lack of a motive doesn’t seem to bother him. However, with the arrival of Scotland Yard, who seem to prefer having evidence before making arrests, the threat of being falsely arrested seems to be diminished, but not extinct. After all Tom’s name is in the local chemist’s poison register for the purchase of some cyanide.
Jack is right that getting to know the victim is at the heart of solving the case and it seems death followed her around in the past two years with firstly her husband disappearing without a trace on a country walk and then her other cousin Judith falling from a balcony. The less desirable qualities of many of the other characters are also revealed through the expected casual and more direct conversations Jack and Tom have with the other characters. Motivations for killing Constance begin to appear, but none of the new information Jack and Tom are uncovering can help explain how the poison was only in Constance’s slice and no one was seen to go near it. An interesting subplot is also intertwined into the story involving a reclusive South American man who lives in a cottage on the Dyer estate and also the fact the locals believe that nearby there is a wild man of the woods.
But this is not a novel featuring one murder and those of you who like the body count of the ITV programme Midsummer Murders will enjoy the story as one by one more bodies keep appearing and are all poisoned by a desperate killer. As the case progresses the strain and stress of the situation begins to tell on Tom, but not on Jack, though Tom puts this down to the fact that Jack:
‘was cast as Sherlock Holmes in our little mystery while I had been given the role of Professor Moriarty, homicidal fiend.’
Yet is Tom really save from the hangman’s noose and the grim reaper himself?
From my description above I would say this book sounds reasonably good and quite interesting. However for me there was one big problem with the plot and that was the fact that by around page 30 I had figured who had done it and how they did it. So yeah a fairly big problem there, though as I was reading I was just hoping that I was wrong and some other solution would appear. It didn’t. I think the reason I worked it out so quickly was because a piece of information was mentioned in these opening pages too directly and was not sufficiently obscured by the writer distracting your attention from it. In addition, the dramatic conclusion wasn’t that dramatic as again I could predict it and it therefore came across as a facsimile of a genuine Golden Age detective novel. Consequently I think when reading this book I was reading it more as an inverted mystery waiting to find out the motive for the crime, to see what the killer did next and to also see how Jack cracked the case.
The narrative style of the book was also something I thought a lot about whilst I was reading (not like I had a crime to solve or anything) and I think my feelings towards it are rather ambivalent. On the one Tom has an engaging style in narrating his experiences and can be quite funny in his descriptions. However, on the other hand, I think Richards’ includes too many similes, within which some of the humour feels forced. I mentioned in my introduction to this review that I was looking to see if Richards had integrated the theological discussions more smoothly into the narrative. On this score I think Richards has become more adept but still has some way to go, with some discussions feeling a bit shoehorned in, although as always they are interesting and thought provoking. Additionally, I also said I was wanting a more complex mystery and annoyingly I think Richards’ would have succeeded if he hadn’t placed the solution to the case so openly in opening of the book. On a final note the Jack and Tom dynamic works well, but I think it is a shame that Jack’s brother Warnie doesn’t feature in this novel, as he did in the first one, because I think he balanced the group well with his literalness, love of detective novels and his pragmatism.
So on the whole I think was disappointed with this book and yet for a small number of fatal errors this could have been a great book. A solution to a seemingly impossible crime which is that easy to discover meant a lower score from me. Also I am still in two minds about the narrative style, as the story is very readable, but there is an overuse of similes, which seem to deliberately try and pick the most random images for the sake of it.