This is the 8th novel in the Elsie Thirkettle and Ethelred Tressider series and these two characters are a pair you’re always drawn back into reading about. It’s a no brainer when it comes to deciding whether or not to buy the latest book and find out the latest pickles they’ve gotten into.
It all starts with an innocent and quite frankly dull alumni reunion for crime writer Ethelred. It is during the dinner that he comes into contact with one of the dons at the college, the unpopular Dr Hilary Joyner. Initially dismissive, Hilary becomes more interested in Ethelred when it seems like he could introduce Hilary to Iris Munnings; a neighbour of Ethelred’s in West Wittering and also the current owner of Wittering Priory. Why is this important? Well it just so happens that the Priory is a key location in the mystery of missing monastery treasure, which is meant to have disappeared around the time of the Dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century. Of course, as often happens to Ethelred, he is put upon; not only by Hilary who invites himself down for the weekend, but also by his literary agent, Elsie. It is not surprising that when it comes to a missing treasure, whose discovery could put any academic on the publishing map, more than one academic is keen to track it down. This inevitability leads to a crowded and somewhat tense tea party at Munnings’ home. A stroll around the garden perhaps, to diffuse the tension? Nice idea, but one which ends in death, when a well ill-advisedly has its cover removed. Tyler packs a lot into this book: lost treasure, suspicious deaths of the past, backbiting in a local historical society and even a femme fatale…
With this series there is so much to love, though the most significant reason has to be the central duo, who share the narrating duties of the tale and through both of them, Tyler loving, tongue definitely in cheek, has a lot of fun with the mystery genre itself. His setting up of a college dinner milieu is enjoyably bathetic and I loved how Elsie and Ethelred discuss the idea of what sort of crime novel they are in, oscillating between good old Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. Elsie is helpfully on hand to outline how to tell if you’re in either of types of stories:
‘If this is Raymond Chandler, then as you enter the house, you’ll be slugged from behind by your policeman friend, Joe, who is actually working for Sammartini. You’ll wake up, drugged, in a private sanatorium in Headington, from which you’ll escape by climbing out of the window. You’ll go back to your office and drink whiskey out of a dirty glass. Your faithful secretary will put a sticking plaster on your cuts. You’ll be fine. If it’s Agatha Christie, Fay will have vanished, leaving behind a cryptic note that makes sense only when you view it upside down in a mirror towards the end of the book.’
The answer to which scenario if any happens, is one of the highlights of the book.
But even outside of the mystery theme, Tyler’s prose style is a delight to read. Even on the first page, what could have been an dull piece of description, is instead turned into a moment of perfectly phrased humour: ‘And there was also something about him – it was difficult to say precisely what – that suggested he had run out of deodorant.’ The tour de force though, has to be the second chapter narrated by Elsie. Her time as train passenger is truly memorable. To be honest you would not want to be on a train with her, but observed from the outside her self-centred and rude tendencies are an absolute hoot to read, as is the way she completely gets herself out of any comeuppances. I’m not the only one to enjoy this chapter, as the Puzzle Doctor also mentions it in his own review, which you can read here.
To be honest I’ve often felt Ethelred is a bit of a Charlie Brown figure, which is emphasised by his role in his working friendship with Elsie. In CB fashion Ethelred is somewhat hapless when it comes to women, (though one feels he is getting better over the series). Elsie of course is not quite convinced and she certainly takes a strong stance when it comes to helping extricate Ethelred from potentially unsuitable females:
‘this is an order: step away from that woman! Pull down the blinds and take cover on the floor with your hands over your head. I’ll come and fetch you and take you to a place of safety.’
I suppose my one gripe would be the ending. Now the quotes on the back of the dust jacket cover may say it is ‘crime in the classic mould’ and ‘very much set in “Golden Age” territory,’ but the one thing it certainly lacks is a golden age solution. It takes more than having all of the suspects in a garden for it to have one. The solution makes sense and is satisfying, yet you have to accept that it will not be a guessable one and is predominantly theorising, which a criminal’s confession confirms. But given the sheer fun of the story that proceeds it, this is a fault which is ultimately forgivable, as it is hard to resist Elsie and Ethelred.
Calendar of Crime: May (8) Month Related Item on the Cover (Flowers)