Today’s review is for the second book in The Smart Woman’s Mystery series. I very much enjoyed the first book, The Smart Woman’s Guide to Murder (2020), so was keen to give this one a try when it became available.
In keeping with the first book, the Body on the Island begins further ahead in the story, at a key moment of drama, (before then going back in time to follow the run up to that crisis point). In the first book it is the discovery of a dead body in the snow, but this time Ursula with her mother, aunt and her mother’s friends are shipwrecked off the coast of Scotland. Moreover, the story starts from the point they are struggling to survive in the water and worse is to come when Ursula sees a woman with green eyes also struggling in the water, whose head is then pushed beneath the waves. Has someone just killed her?
Ursula’s core group and a few others survive the ordeal, whilst others have not; their bodies found or missing. Yet not only do they need to cope with being stranded on an uninhabited island without supplies, but they also need to survive the plans of a killer, who also seems to be on the island picking them off. Is the island inhabited after all? Or did they bring the killer with them?
Last time around it had been Pandora, Ursula’s mother, who had organised the group getaway. This time it is Ursula who has decided it would be good for them to toughen up and go on a survival experience holiday:
‘But people who live through a disaster somehow seem to attract even more tragedy, as if fate has found a new lightning rod. Calamity and chaos seem to gravitate towards certain individuals. I decided we should be ready for it next time. And that is why I signed us up for a survival course.’
Unsurprisingly her mother is far from keen, and I think in this instance I don’t blame her… As you might envisage Ursula and the others are not naturals when it comes to survival holidays and even before they have arrived Ursula is regretting her decision, after looking at the kit list:
‘Toilet trowel (I said it was a typo and should have been towel. Mother has the John Lewis, or ‘Mothership’, as she calls it, app on her phone for emergencies, so she clicked it immediately and ordered three luxury cotton John Lewis bath sheets in white. Later on, I made sure I got her a little Cath Kidston gardening set with mini spade, rake, gloves and seeds. She didn’t question why we’d be gardening on a survival trip.)’
I think it is important Ursula and her group, to varying degrees, are not the most pleasant of people, (as their survival instructor quickly discovers), as it makes their discomfort of being on such a holiday more enjoyable to read.
Having read the first book in the series, I was prepared for their sniping and consistent bickering with one another, which I think helped make it more entertaining. As did knowing more about their personal history and dysfunctional relationships with one another. Even when they’re nearly drowning in the sea, they still can’t stop themselves from being sarcastic:
‘That had occurred to me.’
Continuing on from the first book, Ursula and her mother still have a rather unhealthy co-dependency on each other and in some ways I felt they were a darker version of the mother and daughter duo we find in the BBC Sitcom Miranda. Although this is quite a Miranda type dialogue:
‘I’ve brought some of my first-blush Darjeeling—’
‘Flush, Mother. It’s not embarrassed tea.’
Although, in other places, their verbal sparring has perhaps more of a touch of Bridget Jones and her mother.
A life-threatening situation, with a killer on the loose to boot, does not, interestingly, bring the group closer together. This is not just because Ursula and her relations and friends seem incapable of being nice to one another, as the other group members, who were also going on the holiday, equally seem to have secrets of their own, and as a consequence can act quite aggressively or unhelpfully. Tension, furthermore, mounts within the remaining survivors, as they begin to wonder who might be picking them off, and who may have had a hand in drowning the woman with the green eyes. Motives, for this latter potential murder, soon come to the fore, and arguably weave a net around the future deaths. But are they just a red herring?
In keeping with the situation, they are dealing with, survival comes before detective work, and death takes its toll upon the characters. This adds to the verisimilitude of the piece, as death is far from being a game to them. Ursula is arguably one of the most affected and it takes a while for her to pass on fully what she thought she saw in the sea. Although you will not be surprised that the gravity of such a testimony is completely upended by the argumentative nature of the group:
‘I’ve seen another murder,’ I said.
She paused, her arms falling. ‘Not again, darling.’
‘What do you mean “not again”? You’ve made it sound like I’ve let myself down.’
‘You know what I mean. Must you do this every time we go away, darling? It does make it very difficult to travel with you.’
‘You should try living with her,’ Mother murmured.
‘I’m not the cause of all these deaths, you know that, don’t you? Witnessing and realizing what is going on does not make me culpable or “difficult to travel with”. I would like to say, for the record, I’m very easy to travel with and eminently easier to live with than my sideshow of a family.’
However, I don’t see this upending as a negative, as I think the dark vein of comedy running through the text, is one of its many strengths, preventing the tale from becoming too bleak.
Nevertheless, due to survival being the name of the game, I would suggest this book works more in the thriller vein, than the first one in the series. Yet, I am not using thriller as a dirty word, or in a pejorative sense. Dorothy L. Sayers, when reviewing for The Sunday Times, did not see thrillers as an inferior kind of mystery. Though she did highlight the need for them to be well-written, (a criterion Victoria’s book easily meets). Moreover, when considering the differences between thrillers and detective stories, Sayers wrote that:
‘is mainly one of emphasis. Agitating events occur in both, but in the thriller our cry is “What comes next?” – in the detective story, “What came first?” The one we cannot guess; the other we can, if the author gives us a chance.’
Victoria’s book leans more towards the former but this does not lead to a lack of clues and things to think about. In particular I thought her variation of the dying message clue, was brilliantly executed in a very creative way. This is also a narrative in which you have to be very careful of over how much acceptance and credence you give to what you are being told. A lot can be sneaked past the reader when they make erroneous assumptions, based on things they think are established facts. The pace accelerates more as the narrative heads into its final furlongs, with a flurry of bodies mounting in the second half. Victoria leaves a few tantalising threads in the final paragraphs as to where things might head next, though it will be interesting to see if she can convince her characters to ever take a trip away again ever! Mind you, I am sure they are the kinds of people who can find peril wherever they are, even if it is home!
Source: Review Copy (Joffe Books)