Given last month’s modern crime reads, I was a bit jittery about trying another. However, I had to admit the title of this one, along with the tagline of ‘a twisty darkly comic take on the classic country house murder mystery,’ strongly tempted me. They certainly tick a lot of boxes. The fact the Puzzle Doctor had also really enjoyed this one a couple of months ago gave me the courage to give it a go. After all, we all know the Puzzle Doctor has impeccable taste, don’t we? *cue everyone rushing to the final rating, to see if it is true*
Before we get into what I thought of the book here is what it is all about:
“A faded country house in the middle of nowhere. The guests are snowed in. The murders begin. Withering and waspish, Ursula Smart (not her real name) gate-crashes her mother’s book club at an isolated country house for a long weekend retreat. Much to Mother’s chagrin. Joining them are Mother’s best friend, Mirabelle, Aunts Charlotte and Less, and Bridget with her dog Mr Bojangles. It doesn’t matter that they’ve read Gone Girl three times this year already, this retreat is their chance to escape bustling suburbia. But someone has other ideas.
A body is found in the grounds. Is a lone killer hunting them? Or has one of their own group embarked on a killing spree? What they need is to stop sniping at each other long enough to solve the mystery before the killer strikes again.
What they need is a guide to survive.”
Well where to begin? How about the title? Whilst the title is not the most important part of a novel, as I have really enjoyed books with quite prosaic names, it is delightful when a title is well-used in regards to the book it is promoting. In the case of today’s read the “guide” element of the title is incorporated into the book through each chapter beginning with a “rule”. These are often bathetic in tone, which I found appealing, such as with ‘Rule 1: Never stay in an isolated country house with a disparate group of possible sociopaths… or a book club.’ I felt the rules resonated with the chapter they were attached to and did not feel forced or arbitrary.
Dowd plunges us straight into the thick of it with a foreshadowing sequence which reveals the discovery of the first body. There is no prevaricating with this story! During this first chapter the author unfolds the setup piece by piece, tantalising us with comments from our narrator, Ursula, such as:
‘None of us could have known, when we first climbed the steps of the house, just how much blood was going to flow in those next forty-eight hours. The Slaughter House, that’s what the press would call it later.’
I enjoyed how oxymoronic the name Slaughter House is, as it seems to overturn the expectations of what a country house is and usually represents.
The unfolding of the setup operates a little like a set of Russian dolls, with more and more information being added to our picture of what is going on. This gradual process of figuring out what is going on works very effectively in the piece and allows us to focus in on some of the key relationships in the book. Early in the first chapter we have the following lines:
‘Six women and a dog assembled in an isolated country house. There was one non-woman, as Mother refers to men, but he’s one of the dead now too.’
Quite an ordinary section yet it drew my attention to the fact Ursula consistently capitalises the word Mother – that capital really says an awful lot and prepares us for their rather dysfunctional, complicated and difficult relationship. It begins with comic bickering with her mother telling Ursula, that she ‘act[s] like a teenager and dress[es] like a pensioner.’ Ursula does not hold back either and is quite happy to disparage her mother’s book group:
‘Old detective novels and a few slightly titillating thrillers you relate to because the characters drink too much really doesn’t constitute a serious literary group.’
We also get passages such as this:
‘The house was the kind of monolith the rampantly wealthy Victorians created as a mausoleum to live in. It was an unnerving old house and it wasn’t too much of a leap to imagine someone stuffing their mother and sitting them in the window. I looked over at Mother. It was a tempting thought.’
Yet this brief snapshot really only covers the surface of their relationship which blends antagonism and dependency in an engaging, original and nuanced way.
Since we are dealing with beginnings this seems the right place to include my only two niggles with this book. The first is a tendency in the first 80ish pages for some repetition when it comes to dramatic description or relaying certain personality points to do with the narrator. Two-four sentences were sometimes used where one would have sufficed. It gave some moments an over-hammering effect. My second is to do with the level of unpleasantness the characters exhibit in the first 80 pages. Dislike among group members is to be expected, as such friction contributes to the tension of the plot and equally if everyone acted like perfect angels then no one would get killed, surely? Yet I think here dislike becomes intense loathing and it is hard to see why these people would want to meet. It is perhaps telling that the country house they are staying at is called Ambergris Towers. A quick google showed that ambergris is a substance which comes the intestines of sperm whales. The owners of the home made their wealth in whaling, but to be honest the name is also somewhat fitting with the unpleasantness of the characters.
This might just be me, but I felt the unlikable natures of the characters in these first 80 pages was a bit relentless, leaving me struggling to attach myself to any one character. Sympathy was not an emotion being drawn from me and there seemed to be a lack in the shifting of tone in the narrative as a consequence. Maybe a few more lighter moments needed to be added.
Yet as I began my second session reading this book and I passed the 80ish page mark both of these niggles dispersed. Why? It is at this juncture that the plot meets the foreshadowed time period of the finding the first body and then proceeds past it into the later plot with all its twists and turns. The shift in focus to the increasingly fraught and dangerous situation does not make these people more likeable or kind, but it does dilute their unpleasantness and not just because there are fewer people. A greater variety of tone is demonstrated and the way the characters try to engage, or avoid engaging, in investigating the deaths is delivered to the reader in a very engrossing manner. I found myself getting through the remaining 2/3s of the book much faster than the first.
The nature of the plot leaves it open to having parallels made to Christie’s famous title And Then There Were None (1939), yet I know there are readers who wince at such parallels being made. It has been done too often and too indiscriminately. However, this is one of those rare occasions where the parallel is appropriate. No Dowd does not copycat the book, nor does she copycat the other Christie titles she nods to. Instead what she does is use them to lead the reader down the proverbial garden path. She makes the reader think they have added two and two together correctly, using the blueprints of their previous readings, when in fact they have got 5 instead of 4. Not only does this author show she can create successful red herrings, but she also demonstrates a strong adeptness at laying a correct trail to the final solution – not that you can see as you are reading! It does not come out of nowhere and I loved thinking back to earlier bits in the book and seeing how they all dovetail together. The best bit of mystification is regarding the agenda of the guilty party, as it depends on what pieces of evidence you notice and give credence to, as to what theory you will go for. In the runup to the ending we also get a nice series of false solutions and because the characters, despite their acrimonious relationships with each other, discuss the situation a lot we get to try different ideas on and see how well they fit. I found these conversations very interesting and they did not interfere with the pace of the book.
Speaking of relationships this book has an interesting one with golden age detective fiction. At points it embodies some of the stereotypes of this style of writing more fully than books of that era did, giving it parodic dimensions, (though I would not describe it as a full on parody/pastiche in the James Anderson mould). This can be seen in the way certain characters function. Yet again beware of making predictions based on how you think things should play out!
So in conclusion, like the Puzzle Doctor, I am baffled as to why this book has flown under the radar, in comparison to other recent titles which have louder publicity, (volume not necessarily being an accurate indicator of quality). Many modern crime books are heralded as being the next new thing for those who enjoy classic crime fiction, and alas these promises can often turn out to be false. That is not the case here and those who love a properly plotted and clued mystery should definitely give this book a try.
I look forward to seeing Dowd’s future work and I believe a second book in the series is forthcoming.
Source: Review Copy (Joffe Books)