Today I am reviewing the 9th novel in Tyler’s Elsie and Ethelred series, which is coming out in April.
‘Ethelred Tressider and his agent Elsie Thirkettle have been invited to lecture on a creative writing course at Fell Hall, a remote location in the heart of ragged countryside that even sheep are keen to shun. While Ethelred s success as a writer is distinctly average, Elsie sees this as an opportunity to scout for new, hopefully more lucrative, talent. But heavy snow falls overnight, trapping those early arrivals inside, and tensions are quick to emerge between the assembled group. When one of their number goes missing, Ethelred leads a search party and makes a gruesome discovery. With no phone signal and no hope of summoning the police, can Ethelred and Elsie identify the killer among them before one of them is next?’
As you can see from the book’s blurb, Elsie and Ethelred’s latest case is situated within a more traditional mould and at various points in the story there are surface level nods to the Golden Age of detective fiction. The writing course Ethelred and Elsie are speaking at is focused on traditional mysteries and Fell Hall, which they are staying is named after Dr Gideon Fell. However, I don’t feel there is a deep structural affinity with this earlier period of crime writing, beyond the setting and initial setup.
One of the consistent strengths of this series, which you can rely upon, is the entertaining nature of the narration, which is shared by Elsie and Ethelred and as usual, in this book, Elsie has the upper hand on Ethelred, bagging the nicest room. Though Elsie, who often speaks before she thinks, gets herself into a few awkward moments, such as when she tries to pretend she has read someone’s book when she hasn’t. Suffice to say her heavy handed interviewing technique is also rather amusing.
This mystery is well stocked with suspicious characters. There is the warden of hall, who is mysteriously enigmatic and is rumoured to be involved with MI6. We have another course member arrive later than the others on foot. Are they really that desperate to take part in the course that they would risk their lives by travelling through a treacherous deluge of snow? Then of course there is our surprising wild card. Claire on first appearance seems shy and as Elsie puts it ‘mousey,’ yet she has the power to render other people terrified when she talks with them alone. What can she possibly be saying to make them so jumpy and on edge? We know she is committed to getting her crime novel published. But what lengths will she go to?
As the first 24 hours unfold, both Elsie and Ethelred can sense something suspicious is going on, but what that thing is, is a separate matter and you can rely on these two to get the wrong end of the stick. Nevertheless, the reader remains vigilant in trying to determine who is going to get bumped off. However, whilst the reader is placing their bets as to who the victim will be, and then of course trying to figure out who has killed them, there is an additional anticipation. The various writers who were supposed to be speaking on the course early on discuss the different types of stories you can tell and one of them mentions how in fiction there is a device of events happening in threes, with the third occurrence resolving the issues raised by the first two. This is a structural device that Tyler plays around with in the subsequent narrative and Elsie and Ethelred even comment upon it as their investigation develops.
Given the set up of the murder the reader is posed with several questions to ponder. Has the correct victim been eliminated? What is the significance of them wearing the wrong coat? There is a tight window of time within which the death could have occurred, but is the evidence accurate in pinning it down as much as it does? What effect would it have on everyone’s alibis if this window changed?
More than one cold case features in this story. Claire’s work in progress is based on a woman who murdered her abusive partner. She was jailed before later being released after an appeal. Meanwhile, in the local area of Fell Hall there was also a murder 20 or so years ago. A man is assumed to have murdered his wife, having been caught having an affair. It was rumoured that the other woman sheltered him, as he disappeared and was never seen again. Yet later she went on to marry someone else. What happened to that man? I think the cold cases in this book are used effectively within the plot and add an interesting angle to the mystery being solved.
Another facet of the novel which I really enjoyed was the humour Tyler puts into depicting the life and career of a writer. No doubt some of this is based on his own experiences, though in other cases, one hopes not…
‘That’s the trouble with male writers – put them in a bar full of girls for long enough and they’ll wake up the next day trying to remember how many draft first novels they’ve promised to read.’
Tyler is never afraid to make comically disparaging comments about his own work and in earlier books he has even had a character criticise an aspect of one of his previous publications. In today’s read it is less specific in that a suspect only shares a dim view on comic crime fiction:
‘Writers do,’ he said. ‘Successful writers anyway. They look at things the way they are and write tragedy. Lesser writers look at things the way they wish they were and write comedy. Hal was very wise to switch away from comic crime. Nobody gets anywhere with that.’
Well with a 9 book long series, it seems that Tyler is an exception to this rule!
Other real-life authors are mentioned in the narrative and below is my favourite example:
‘In a fight to the death between a crime writer and a recently qualified solicitor, I’d back the crime writer to win, three out of five times. Four out of five if the crime writer was M. W. Craven.’
I have done a talk with Mike and Tyler might have a point! Though I don’t think we should put it to the test at the next CWA conference…
As the mystery develops it is interesting to see how the crime writer characters respond to the situation they are in, as it is one they have often written, but never actually lived through, (apart from Ethelred probably). Characters such as Hal sometimes look at the situation in those terms. For instance, when trying to justify his innocence to Elsie he says that:
‘And, as a crime writer, I am well aware how inadvisable it is to kill somebody when snowed in at a house in the middle of nowhere with no escape route. John Dickson Carr could have pulled it off, but not me.’
There are multiple strands involved in the ending, and I would say they are a satisfying mixture of ones you can and can’t anticipate. The list of suspects narrows down well, but the motive is perhaps a little trickier unless you have considered a certain idea. Going into the ending it looked like it was going to be a tense showdown between our delightful comic duo and the killer, but the moment is rendered bathetic.
So all in all an enjoyable book to while away an afternoon with.
Source: Review Copy (Allison & Busby via Netgalley)
P. S. New word for the day – septentrional, which is Latin for ‘of the North’. I am now a little tempted to start telling people I’m septentrional.