I had a bit of a love/hate relationship with my last Rowe read, Lamb to the Slaughter (1995). This was the last in the Verity Birdwood series, yet me being me, I hadn’t actually read some of the earlier ones. Today’s read is the first step in remedying this, as despite my ambiguous opening sentence, I do really enjoy Rowe’s work. Although written in the 80s, Rowe’s work does hark back a little to more vintage crime fiction, having all the characters gathered at the end to hear the solution and before the story readers are provided with a cast of characters. Like Nicholas Blake, Margery Allingham and P. D. James, Rowe has used a publishing firm as her tale’s setting.
The publishing firm Berry and Michaels has just been taken over, meaning a new managing director, Quentin Hale. From the older employees’ point of view his arrival is not a good thing, which seems to be confirmed when he disregards all his publicity manager Evie’s upcoming promotion plans, going instead with her new assistant’s idea. The new promotional events focus on four of publisher’s writers: a children’s author, a gardening writer, a novelist and a scandalmonger biographer. Evie and Kate, managing editor, know that this idea is headed for disaster: with one author being a confirmed alcoholic, another heading for a breakdown and two of the writers being ex-lovers. Yet Evie and Kate do nothing, prepared to see how things will turn out. Of course they do not realise it will end in murder… Thankfully our amateur sleuthing TV researcher, Verity Birdwood, is on hand to solve the case.
I’m glad I returned to Rowe’s work, after my conflicting previous read, as she is certainly writing in top form with this one. One of her many strengths as a writer has to be her ability to craft not one brilliant twist but nearly half a dozen and pretty much all within a 100 pages, without the plot suffering. The final third of this book is quite the tour de force in presenting and dismantling solutions. Rowe has also done a very good job with the characters in this book, especially in the way she plays on the readers’ emotions and sympathies, making you quickly hate one character, before getting you to reconsider and change your mind, turning reader sympathies into a game of a badminton or tennis. Verity is, as always, a brilliant character, whose scruffy quiet exterior belies her deadlier and sharper personality. Her interactions with other characters are highly enjoyable and it was interesting to see the tensions between Verity and her friend Kate, the latter being quite scathing of Verity’s togetherness, remoteness and detached fascination with human nature. Some of these criticisms feel unjustified but in one scene I love Verity’s response to them, regaining control of the situation and turning everything upside down without having to resort to anger or insults. Verity is an intriguing amateur sleuth to follow, as in each of the 3 novels I have read featuring her, I find her a more complex and deep character, despite reading them out of order. Rowe’s deftness in plotting and characterisation definitely make her an author I would strongly recommend and I shall certainly be hunting out the other books in the series that I haven’t read yet.
See also: Grim Pickings (1987)