Murder by the Book (1989) by Jennifer Rowe

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.

Overall Thoughts

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.

Rating: 4.5/5

See also: Grim Pickings (1987)

13 comments

  1. Well, your have convinced me. I am not looking for new authors, I have to many on my piles already, but this sounds like a perfect fit. I love the skull on the cover but I will actually be buying the 1st book which also has a skull on the cover. I also like the publishing firm as a setting but I can wait until I try the first one.

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    • Hooray! Glad to make another Rowe convert lol Probably a good idea doing them in chronological order. Thankfully you won’t have to wait long until reading this one as it is the second in the series.

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  2. Thanks for the review. 😊 I think of the three Verity novels I read, I liked ‘Grim Pickings’ best and ‘Stranglehold’ least. ‘Murder by the Book’ was the first Verity novel I read, and was sufficiently interesting to make me seek out the other titles. I think what I appreciate best about the Verity novels would be the strong characterisation, coupled with the general sense of fair-play.

    I recall seeing a copy of ‘Makeover Murders’, but I can’t remember if I purchased it. 😞 Though I remember purchasing ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’, which I’m intending to keep to the last. I get the impression you liked ‘Lamb’ least – but I don’t have much choice having already read ‘Grim’ and ‘Book’ – unless a copy of ‘Makeover’ appears in my boxes, and promises to be a stronger read. I’m sorting out my book boxes next week, so I might get a pleasant surprise…

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    • Why did you like Stranglehold least? Fingers crossed you have makeover murders as Lamb is definitely last of a series sort of read. I think my main issue with Lamb was the first third in which the reader has to spend lots of time with some fairly repulsive characters. This is a very subjective sort of issue so you might not have the same problem as me. Then again the reader is ending is very good.

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  3. I’m glad you enjoyed Murder By The Book. I re-read it two years ago and found it still very enjoyable — I especially love that we got to see inside Birdie’s house (the only time in the six books this happens!) Although most people prefer Grim Pickings, I remember thinking that this was the book where the killer’s identity was the most surprising. My only criticism is that Birdie comes into the book quite late so for some fans it might be a bit disappointing, but it was also great that Kate from Grim Pickings got to return and take on a much stronger role.

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