Source: Review Copy (Allison and Busby)
This is book 7 in the Elsie Thirkettle and Ethelred Tressider series and it certainly opens with a competition winning opening line: ‘It was at his own memorial service that I first spoke to Roger Norton Vane.’ Ethelred has recently been commissioned to write a biography for the crime writer Roger Vane, who mysteriously disappeared in a Thai jungle twenty years ago, after a tiff with his then partner, Tim Macdonald. This memorial service was intended to be a celebration of his life, followed by his niece Cynthia intending to get him declared dead, with the view to inheriting his quite sizeable fortune. Therefore Vane turning up at his own memorial puts a rather large spoke in the wheel and not just for Cynthia, as his return causes difficulties for his ex-partner and a whole rake of old school friends and other acquaintances who fear his malevolent streak. But is he really who he says he is? The first half of the novel concerns itself with this very question, as the evidence at times is inconclusive, neither pointing definitively one way or another and of course just as Ethelred and Elsie think they have solved matters, a corpse enters the equation.
N. B. Oh before you mention DNA testing, which would fairly quickly prove Vane’s identity, Cynthia is not a blood relative, (having been adopted) and there is no one else to do such a test with. Just thought I’d mention it as this aspect did bug me for a while, as the fact of adoption is withheld from the reader bit longer than seems appropriate.
Many strengths of the previous novels are still there to be found in this latest story, with the narrative switching entertainingly between Elsie and Ethelred. There is an amusing running joke in the book as well, involving a number of the opening lines of the chapters. Ethelred is as endearing as ever, being taken down the garden path by most of the characters, as well as being put upon by pretty much everyone except a Sergeant Beef type policeman named Joe. In a way this is a story of interviews, as Ethelred goes from character to character trying to piece together who Vane was, which is no easy task given how many half-truths and lies he receives, though they do give the reader different portraits of Vane’s personality. Metafiction also makes a delightful appearance in the story, though perhaps less present than is usual in the series. For instance Vane’s disappearance is contrasted with Christie’s own, making the former look more extreme in comparison, even faintly ridiculous. There is also a moment where Ethelred questions the short time frame he has for writing the biography, being concerned about the quality of what he is writing. Elsie true to character, responds by saying that the commissioning editor is ‘not so worried about that […] She’d have got Barry Forshaw or Martin Edwards or somebody to do it if she’d wanted it well written.’
However despite these positives, I don’t think this story was as strong as the previous one in the series, Cat Among the Herrings (2016). The main reason for this I think is due to the narrowness of the plot type, which I don’t think justified the page count. Consequently the pace felt slower and I think the first half of the story could have been shortened a bit. Equally I think some readers will find the ending a bit unsatisfying due to the gimmick deployed.
So whilst this is not the best Elsie and Ethelred in the series, it’s hard to not smile at the antics of these keen though antithetic sleuths, whose unique quirks and differing perspectives on the world shine through in the prose.