Lamb to the Slaughter (1995) by Jennifer Rowe

Today’s book continues the 90s trend of my reading. However the first thing I should note is that I have been somewhat of a wally and read this book, the last in the Verity Birdwood series, despite only having read the first book in the series. I don’t think this caused any spoiler issues, but I do feel like I wasn’t quite in touch with some of the other serial characters which I think developed in the middle of the series. Warnings over let’s look at the book anyways.

The story begins with the release of Trevor Lamb, who after five years in prison, for murdering his wife, has been pardoned. His release was mostly due to a book, lawyer Jude Gregorian wrote on the case, pointing out how weak the evidence was that convicted him. However on going back to his home community, Hope’s End, where his family reside, he is found murdered 24 hours later. Was he killed by his dead wife’s parents, who also live in the area? Or was it one of his family members? Or was it someone else, the true killer of his wife, Daphne? It doesn’t help of course that aside from his hugely unpleasant personality, he mouths off in the pub that he knows who really did the crime. Verity Birdwood, the series’ private investigator is at the centre of all the action, working as a researcher for a TV company who want to do a documentary on Lamb and his release from prison. Birdwood also has some social awkwardness to deal with, as she seems to have some kind of past history with Jude, but it just so happens that the police officer sent from Sydney to deal with the case is Dan Toby, who she has worked with pretty closely in previous stories and who she meets socially. [It is of course at this point I had wished I had read the middle books first as I am only guessing at these relationships].

Overall Thoughts

Firstly this is one heck of a series finale! Like Harriet Rutland’s Blue Murder (1942), I was left gasping at the end. Yet the book certainly did not start out this way. In fact I was almost ready to give up by about chapter 3. Why you ask? Well to be honest the social milieu revolving around Lamb and his family members really didn’t work for me. They were that little bit too unpleasant and quite frankly wouldn’t be out of place on a Jeremy Kyle episode. They just exude sweat, alcohol and crassness and it does all get a bit much. I think the way the story is a structured exacerbates this issue, as the first third of the book focuses on the run up to Lamb’s murder, which means you have to spend a lot of page time with this dysfunctional family.

Yet for all that I do have to take my hat off to Rowe for crafting the character of Trevor, who really should feature on some kind of top fictional anti-hero list. It is interesting to see how Jude copes with Trevor, as despite his intense belief in justice, Jude really doesn’t like the man he has saved. In fact I would say Jude increasingly begins to wonder what sort of monster he has created. I find having the wronged man to be such an unlikeable character to be unusual.

Verity Birdwood, or Birdie as everyone calls her in the book, was as intriguing as she was in my last encounter with her. She doesn’t comfortably fit the stereotypical female investigator role and I like how she is neither an emotional nincompoop nor a cold thinking machine. Rowe manages to make her a convincing combination of the two, keen to rely on her logic and reason and not let her emotions warp her judgement, but not without empathy or sensitivity. Her plan to have Miss Marple-like conversations with various local inhabitants also appealed to me. However it did pique my interest when Rowe has one of Trevor’s old flames instinctively feel a similarity between Trevor and Verity. The old flame initially saw Trevor like a solitary fox and this same mental image comes up when she first sees Verity, ‘Here was another one. Another solitary. Another calm, ruthless one. Dangerous.’ I wouldn’t say Verity is ruthless but there is definitely a strong sense of determination about her.

So yes I commented on how the book doesn’t have the best of beginnings, but things pick up a lot once you get to the current murder of Trevor. The toxicity of some of the characters becomes less concentrated, making it easier to enjoy Rowe’s writing more. I guessed one twist in the story, but I certainly didn’t see the ending coming at all – yet annoyingly of course the clues and signs were there, I had just completely missed them. I think the ending of this book will stay with me for quite a while, as it can be safely described as jaw dropping.

With such an ending this book would naturally be a hot contender for the Book of the Month, but I am afraid that the Jeremy Kyle component of the story really pulled the book down for me, hence my rating. If you’re a fan of the show then of course that won’t be an issue, but if it is not your cup of tea I’d recommend starting with some of the earlier books in the series (like a sensible reader- unlike me), before ending with this, as this tale’s finale is definitely worth it.

Rating: 4/5

See also:

Grim Pickings (1987)

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20 comments

  1. Thanks for another great review, Kate! Your assessment of Birdie is so right. It’s good to know I have a great finale to this series to look forward to. I’ve read the first two books and absolutely loved them and the Australian setting. I only wish Jennifer Rowe had been able to continue this series past Book Six. I’m savoring each book because I know there aren’t that many. I’ve collected one from her Tessa Vance series, too. She’s a lovely writer.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes it does seem a shame that the series is so short, though glad you’re being more sensible than I am, and reading them in order. Like you I enjoy the Australian setting and Birdie is great. Not tried Rowe’s Vance series. Is it any good?

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  2. Thanks for the review, and I’m glad this title proved to be a good read – some reviewers rank this as the best of the Verity series. But I suppose that depends on one receives the initial characterisation and situations? To date, I’ve read ‘Grim Pickings’, ‘Murder by the Book’ and ‘Stranglehold’, and I daresay ‘Grim Pickings’ was the strongest offering, even if it ended up being slightly long-drawn. I think I have ‘Makeover Murders’ and ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’ sitting somewhere in my boxes, and I’, thinking of keeping ‘Lamb’ as my last read.

    You are having a strong string on 1990s mysteries! Though the chain might be broken with Icelandic noir next… >.<

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    • I can see why some would rank this book highly given the ending, but as you say it depends on how well you gel with the first third. I’ve got Murder by the Book in my TBR pile so at least I have more Rowe to come back to. Definitely recommend keeping this book till last.
      I’m afraid my 90s will have to be broken as I have no more 90s books to read. The disadvantages of having a small TBR pile – you can’t really do a long chain of a given theme. But in general I would say I was continuing my dabble in more modern crime fiction with my next read.

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  3. “They just exude sweat, alcohol and crassness ”

    I think I enjoyed your depiction of this aspect rather more than it can have been enjoyable to read it. The idea of “The Jeremy Kyle Mysteries” is enough to make the blood run cold.

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  4. Thanks for this great review! I often wondered if it was just me who still re-read Rowe’s books and thought about Birdie. I actually read ‘Lamb’ first, back in 1996 (it wasn’t clear then that this would be the last of the series … maybe Jennifer Rowe was also planning on writing more). I really enjoyed it, as I grew up in a country town not unlike Hope’s End in some ways. Fast forward two decades and having re-read the entire six books several times, ‘Lamb’ is entirely different to the other five in that we get Birdie’s inner-thoughts, and also see a different side to her (with Jude). Reflecting on the series as a whole, Grim Pickings will always be special for kick-starting Birdie’s adventures. Murder by the Book was a favourite of mine because it was the one where I was the most surprised by the killer’s identity, and I also loved the sneak peak into Birdie’s home. While Rowe may not have originally intended on finishing the series with Lamb to the Slaughter, it does convey some sense of an ending to a special series.

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    • Sorry your comments didn’t appear immediately but if you are a new or less frequent commenter on wordpress blogs they will sometimes hold your comments until the blog writer has accepted them. Reading this book after only having read Grim Pickings, was quite a jump, as you’re right that Lamb is a very different book. It is a shame though that Rowe never wrote any more than these 6.

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  5. The first time I commented on this blog, it didn’t appear to post so I’ll try again. So exciting to know that I am not the only one who loved and re-read Rowe’s Birdie series. I actually read Lamb to the Slaughter first (back in 1996). I didn’t know then that it was the last in the series: maybe Jennifer Rowe didn’t, either. In any case, it still conveys some form of an ending as we get to see Birdie move from being a more silent observer to someone whose inner-thoughts are revealed for the first time — and her complex relationship with Jude. I grew up in a tiny country town not unlike Hope’s End in some ways, so I really enjoyed that aspect of the book. The mystery itself was quite hard to guess, and now who I was expecting at all.

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  6. Reflecting on the series as a whole, I enjoyed all of them. However, Grim Pickings will probably be everyone’s favourite for kick-starting the series and putting a unique Aussie twist on the classic whodunnit. I personally enjoyed Murder by the Book because of the killer’s motive, and being so surprised by the ending. I also have a soft spot for this one because we got to see inside Birdie’s house, albeit fleetingly, and I always wanted to know more about her. The collection of short stories, Death in Store, is one I always turn to if I find myself missing Birdie and the gang (Toby, Milson, Kate etc) but don’t necessarily want to read an entire novel. The Christmas-themed story, of which the collection takes its title, is a great read in December when I see the major department stores all decorated. Apart from GP, which is set in the Blue Mountains, the others all take place in Sydney. At the time, I was not living here but now I do I often think about parts of the city in a different way. (As a funny coincidence, I now work in the same building that Jennifer Rowe once did when she was an editor and sometimes wonder if any of the streets and sights I pass each day might have been those that Birdie traversed). I got to meet Jennifer Rowe once at an event for her children’s books. She was lovely and kindly answered my question about Birdie, who I was surprised to learn was in fact based on a man she knew. JR told me that as a woman she felt more comfortable writing about a female. That said, Birdie does have a certain asexuality, which I think is what helps her see people for who they are. Sorry for the rambling.

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    • Didn’t realise that Birdie featured in some short stories as well. I’ll have to keep an eye out for them and it is great to hear about your personal interactions with the author. Enviable indeed! Also really interested to hear that Birdie was based on a man!

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  7. My Book of the Year back in 2003. If you allow for some badly bungled English (I like to think my mastery of the language has improved since then) here is my contemporary review for the Yahoo GAD group. As you will see, I was very enthusastic.

    ***** Jennifer Rowe, LAMB TO THE SLAUGHTER
    Trevor Lamb is not a very sympathetic folk, but he has always sworn he hadn’t killed his wife. After having spent five years in jail, he is finally cleared and comes home. It would be an euphemism to say that not everybody at Hope’s End is happy to see him back, especially his late wife’s family. Of course Trevor is murdered, and Verity Birdwood has to investigate that great loss for whole mankind, discovering a some sad truth.
    Excellent – no other word. If perfection really exists, this book comes very close. Atmosphere and characters are remarkably done. Plot is an absolute beauty, worthy of Dame Agatha in her most brightening years. I’ve heard that Rowe had stopped writing. How can such a felony be?

    As often happens with me, it remains to this day the only book of hers that I’ve read, but what a book!

    P.S.: Another of my Best of the Year books, F. Addington Symonds’s “Smile and Murder”, is now available at a decent price on Amazon.uk. Since our tastes lately have proved to be very similar I strongly urge you to give it a glance; it’s very sui generis but also (I think) very good. Also and more egotistically I’d like to finally meet another person that has read it!

    https://www.amazon.co.uk/Smile-murder-Bloodhound-mystery-no-84/dp/B0000CIZN4/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1522000875&sr=1-1&keywords=smile+and+murder+addington

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    • Well I’ve only read one more Rowe book than you, but I’d definitely recommend you trying out some of her other stuff. Smile and Murder sounds intriguing – what is it about? Not able to find out much online.

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      • Hmmm. How could I pitch this one without giving anything away? Let’s say it’s a whodunit told in a highly subjective manner by a narrator that may or may not be reliable as he is the prime suspect in the potentially fishy death of his cousin. If you find this summary not detailed enough – and I wouldn’t blame you for that – then you may take a look at the book’s jacket at this website – but you need a good eyesight as you can’t zoom in:

        https://www.dustjackets.com/pages/books/34482/f-addington-symonds/smile-and-murder

        Liked by 1 person

      • Good enough for me lol And I could just about make out the blurb on the dust jacket. Silly of them to not have a zoom function. Got myself a copy of this book or should I say the copy from Amazon, so looking forward to reading it soon.

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    • A note of warning! There is only one copy available at amazon.co.uk and that too at a decent price. Hence if one wants it, one should buy it immediately. If it is sold, it will be extremely difficult to get this extremely rare book, the only other copy being at amazon.com at 49 dollars plus shipping.
      @Xavier Lechard: Have you reviewed it? I may consider buying the French version Un Sourire Assassin whose availability position is better.

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      • @ Santosh Iyer:

        I’m always amazed at how some books that are fairly easy to find in translation are so hard to get in their original language – and by some whim of fate most of my favorites fall into that category! 🙂

        I haven’t written a review of Smile and Murder at the time when I read it, as I had pretty much stopped reviewing books at the time (mostly because I was stuck in a major reader’s block) but I strongly advise you to get a copy of the French edition if you can find one, all the while warning you that it is a very special book whose obscurity may well have to do with me being the only person in the world to like it!

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      • Yes, I can see that it is currently unavailable at amazon.co.uk !
        I have placed an order for the French version fro Abe Books.

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