Today’s read is one of my occasional forays into modern crime fiction and it was only recently that I discovered how divisive a book it is among my crime reading friends. So I was curious as to where I would land on the spectrum.
‘Judith Potts is seventy-seven years old and blissfully happy. She lives on her own in a faded mansion just outside Marlow, there’s no man in her life to tell her what to do or how much whisky to drink, and to keep herself busy she sets crosswords for The Times newspaper.
One evening, while out swimming in the Thames, Judith witnesses a brutal murder. The local police don’t believe her story, so she decides to investigate for herself, and is soon joined in her quest by Suzie, a salt-of-the-earth dog-walker, and Becks, the prim and proper wife of the local Vicar.
Together, they are the Marlow Murder Club.
When another body turns up, they realise they have a real-life serial killer on their hands. And the puzzle they set out to solve has become a trap from which they might never escape…’
I have to admit this was a novel I particularly struggled to get into, and it took me a while to quite put my finger on why. There is no time wasted in this story, as murder occurs suddenly and without warning, within a matter of pages. I don’t ordinarily have a problem with this and in a way I didn’t have a problem with it now. Yet on the other hand it was part of the problem, confusing right? This is because the first 100 pages of this book deliver a very fast-tracked narrative, beginning with the first death and with the initial investigation. Everything seemed to be happening too quickly and too swiftly. The word offkey springs to mind and this sense of things not being quite right also made its presence felt within the characters themselves.
Let’s start with Judith. The author is continuing to mine the old people are hilarious rule breaking maverick trope, commencing with his protagonist being a regular skinny dipper, and is participating in this activity when she hears the gunshot. The way in which this element was conveyed to the reader seemed a bit overdone and too crude a touch, when a more subtle approach could have been adopted. I think in some ways this aspect was added simply to bring about the ending of the first chapter, which seeks to upend notions of cape wearing superheroes. But yes it all felt somewhat forced, and there were several occasions in the story when Judith’s actions did not ring true with her character, leading me to question the purpose of certain narrative events.
Another strand of the story which seemed forced was the choice of detecting sidekicks and the manner in which Judith meets them and gets them on board. Their stark differences in living and personality were composed of too many cliches for my liking. Although an interesting angle to the trio is the way the others become suspicious of Judith and her possible murky past. But even the anti-hero elements there are well worn.
However, after the first third the plot improves, and the case Judith is investigating widens out. I found myself getting more into the story, even if I couldn’t fully invest in the characters. The prose makes for a quick read, so even if it is 300+ pages, you can still comfortably read this in a matter of hours. The personalities of the victims and suspects provide an interesting level of ambiguity, and Judith experiences a steep learning curve at the denouement of the book. This is suitably dramatic, though I found the solution a bit disappointing as it occurred to me early on and I had dismissed it as I thought it too famous to still be used.
I am aware that the author produces scripts for Death in Paradise and playing the story through my head I can see how this would suit that medium. I am just not so sure it is equally compelling to read in book format.