Crime novels which are comical tend to draw my attention, but I think the penname of the authors who wrote this book also intrigued me this time. Additionally being an animal lover, I was also drawn in by the fact the protagonist, Customs Officer Deborah Jones Smith takes her cat, Gorgonzola with her on this particular case and the cat is in fact a trained sniffer for drugs. The main source of humour in this story lies in Deborah’s clumsiness and ineffectiveness as an undercover operative – with Gorgonzola seeming to be much more competent. From the very first page the world of undercover work is spoofed and there is a clear sense of bathos, which reminded me of the Johnny English films. Here is one such example:
‘At the foot of the stairs a sharp pain razored through my shin, and for a long, heart stopping moment I thought I was under attack… I wrenched off the glasses to discover I’d been the victim of an ornate Victorian umbrella stand.’
No Suspicious Circumstances (2007) begins with a case going wrong (unsurprisingly) for Deborah and her boss gives her a new assignment, which he says she can treat like a holiday. It involves her going to the White Heather Hotel near Edinburgh, which is run by Murdo and Morag Mackenzie (the latter of which occasionally reminded me of the sitcom character Basil Fawlty from Fawlty Towers). The hotel is suspected of being involved in heroin smuggling. In a similar vein to Agatha Christie’s At Bertram’s Hotel (1965), there is motley collection of guests at the hotel, with the potential for identity deceptions. There is a gastronome called Felicity Lannelle, two Americans named Hiram J Spinks and Waldo M Hinburger, an Italian called Gina Lombardini and a newly married couple from London, Mr and Mrs Smythe. A recurring source of humour during Deborah’s stay at the hotel is the fact it does not allow pets, leading to many a humorous circumstance involving Gorgonzola.
Initially Deborah is a little befuddled by the information she digs up. Why was Murdo so jumpy about her seeing the tins of haggis in the garage? And why does Waldo instantly wonder if she is a cop? At various points in Edinburgh she spots hotel guests conversing together and the scrap of conversations leave Deborah suspicious and rather wet when she has to dive into a pool at the Botanic Gardens to avoid being spotted. A bit like Miranda Hart from her comedy show Miranda, Deborah’s tailing of suspects often leads to her being in amusingly awkward situations. But nevertheless she does get some clues as to what is going on with mentions of drop sites and also geographical locations such as Inchcolm Island and an unspecified castle.
However, this spying holiday takes a serious turn when several of the hotel guests become critically ill or die due to seemingly natural accidents. The range of “accidents” is impressive and wouldn’t be out of place in a Golden Age detective fiction novel. Deborah also begins to start coming a cropper, making me surprised that by the end of the novel she hasn’t broken a bone or got permanent brain damage. Or maybe it is all the knocks to the head which lead to her ineptness in working undercover. With all the rooky mistakes she makes it is not surprising that once she is sure she has identified a key suspect she fails again and again to find sufficient evidence against them and arrest them. And I think this ineptness may have been overdone as it does start to grate at times, though I liked how deadly peril and embarrassing situations were balanced in the narrative.
Comedy is also introduced into the story through other means such as in Deborah’s relationship with her cat, (which is slightly John and Garfield like, though Deborah is a bit less dim than John) where there is a sense of them trying to get one over each other:
‘As I turned away, my eye caught a quirky notice on a basket by the door. Accessorise your pet. Match your tartan. Coats, hats, bootees, collars and leads – his, hers, and its. Gorgonzola and I like teasing each other. This would be just the thing to send her up the wall. I rummaged till I found the very thing – a pet’s coat of a particularly virulent violet, red and yellow, designed to fit a small dog – or a very large cat.’
Deborah also creates comic incongruity when she attempts to pretend to be a drug cartel operative. I think the novel also relies on cultural stereotypes (including of British people) for some of its comedy and Deborah does tend to type suspects quite quickly. For example Spinks is described as wearing at one point, a ‘hideous yellow and black tartan cap in MacLeod tartan, or perhaps more accurately, MacLoud’ and for long time Deborah’s perception of him is limited to him being a stereotypically loud American.
Overall although the writing style is often funny I think the book was a bit too long and the pace was too slow as it often includes too much information/steps in given scenes such as the journey Deborah takes to the hotel and her getting settled in there. I think what also made it feel slower was that this is a story more about finding evidence to prove someone is guilty rather than solely figuring out who the guilty person is and personally I think more time going into the backgrounds of the suspects and focusing on the who element would have helped to ameliorate this problem and also possibly made Deborah’s ineptness less repetitive. However, the role of the cat is well done as this character does not dominate the story so when the cat is involved their presence has more of an effect. This is a book with a lot of good elements but I’m don’t think it was completely pulled off satisfactorily.