I am pretty convinced that there is some kind of conspiracy to prevent me from reading at the moment. Every time I thought I would have a chance to read today’s book, a deluge of Coffee and Crime Classic Crime advent calendars descended upon me. Never have I felt so conflicted, as great sales alas mean zilch reading time. However, against the odds I managed to finish this book last night, which is the third book in The Smart Woman’s Guide to Murder series. The first of these titles won The People’s Book Prize 2020/2021 in the fiction category. You will find links to these first two books at the end of this post.
‘The phones are out.
The roads have flooded.
There’s no way in or out.
And the murders have begun.
Ursula Smart and her mother are invited to a supper club at Greystone Castle on the edge of a picturesque Dartmoor village, along with their ever-adventurous book group. But as the dinner party begins, their hosts Lord and Lady Black begin to reveal festering resentments. Lord Black, who actually bought his title, looks like he’s having an affair with the maid. Then as midnight strikes, someone is found brutally murdered and the Smart women find themselves investigating another perplexing crime. On this dark and stormy night, with the castle cut off by flood waters, who will be the next to die?
AN IMPOSSIBLE LOCKED-ROOM MURDER MYSTERY WITH A TOUCH OF DARK HUMOUR.’
The opening paragraphs humorously face head on the fact that series amateur sleuths seem to be walking corpse magnets. This is a theme earlier classic crime series also incorporated into their works, such as June Wright’s So Bad a Death (1949), which starts with the narrator claiming that:
‘I am not a femme fatale. Crime does not dog my footsteps… Neither am I one of those sleuths for whom corpses crop up conveniently. Such individuals should, in the interests of public safety, be marooned a desert island. Their presence in the community is an incentive to murder.’
Well as book two in the series shows, even an island is not a safe place to put the Smart Women! Ursulsa, who continues to narrate the series creates her own spin on this theme:
‘I suppose my rather secretive nature does encourage suspicion. That and the fact that I seem to attract death. I’ve been accused of seeing more than my fair share of dead bodies, as if that is a crime in itself. In my experience, death is never fair. Perhaps I have seen more than most, but, as Mother always says, it’s less than an undertaker. Mother doesn’t do tact.’
Moreover, one of the things I really enjoyed about the opening of the book is that it considers the social and financial consequences for people who encounter murder a lot. For example, we find out why Ursula and Pandora’s therapist is no longer around: ‘I should say that Bob the Therapist isn’t dead, he just needed to take a break last year from hearing about the various murders we’d seen. The last we heard, he was in a Peruvian jungle experimenting with legal highs.’ Then there’s Pandora’s blog which she uses to write about the murders they have encountered, using a great deal of artistic license:
‘Aunt Charlotte said distractedly.
“We’re all grist to your mother’s mill. She did a piece on sibling rivalry last month entitled ‘How to cope if your sister is an emotional vampire.’ I’d only asked her if I could borrow the Vax.”
Mother looked defiant. ‘You can’t blame me for embroidering on my tatty relatives. I need to market the blog. It needs sensational, clickbait titles.’
Pandora’s expectations of the social occasion they have been invited to versus its’ reality equally add to the comic delightfulness of the beginning.
A good chunk of the novel focuses on the safari supper, which means the group go from house to house in a village to have each course. I thought this was a very unusual concept to include and it is not one I have come across before in fiction. I wondered if the first murder would take place during this plot event, but instead this setting is utilised as a way of navigating through the fractured, dysfunctional and toxic relationship dynamics of the guests and the villagers. At the time I thought this section could have shortened a bit but looking back at it I can see how it contains a number of useful pointers in solving the crimes that take place. There is a definite sense of being shown things rather than being merely told them.
Victoria Dowd excels in creating unpleasant characters, particularly in how she makes you want to keep reading about them. Although the advantage of having such unlikeable characters in your book is that you can generate a lot of humour around the uncomfortable situations they end up in. Nevertheless, in the third book I would say it is the hosts and the locals who are the unkindest and verbally cutting. They manage to outdo the Smart Women, something Aunt Charlotte comments on in the story itself: ‘These people are worse than us.’
The narrative contains several pleasing allusions to crime fiction. Firstly, given the setting of Dartmoor, Sherlock Holmes gets a mention, and a monkey character is named Dupin. There is also an amusing nod to Cluedo, done in a clever way. I know the author is a big Agatha Christie fan, so it is enjoyable and interesting to see how her mysteries adopt some of the hallmark traits of this earlier writer’s mysteries. In particular I would say Victoria is adept with her red herrings. Miss Marple in The Body in the Library (1942) says: ‘The trouble in this case is that everybody has been much too credulous and believing. You simple cannot afford to believe everything that people tell you.’ And I would say that this is a very crucial point to bear in mind when reading Victoria’s book. Other Christie parallels which occurred to me came from the following titles: The Murder at the Vicarage (1930), Towards Zero (1944), A Murder is Announced (1950), Mrs McGinty’s Dead (1952) and At Bertram’s Hotel (1965). I won’t say which parts I was reminded of specifically as that would give too much away.
The investigation of the deaths is concentrated into one quarter of the book mostly and I think I would have liked this part of the narrative to have been longer, as it was in the first book in the series. That said the denouement does have a nice Christianna Brand flavour to it. I thought a map of the village/castle area would have been nice too, as I am not the best when it comes to visualising geographical terrains. However, aside from these two points, the central killing has a very well thought out and interesting modus operandi, which I think is set up effectively and avoids feeling like it comes out of nowhere. All I can say is I hope the author didn’t try it out at home! I hear that book 4 in the series is underway and I am looking forward to finding out which reckless and foolhardy people have invited the Smart Women next!
Source: Review Copy (Joffe Books)
See also: The Puzzle Doctor has also reviewed this title here.
The Smart Woman’s Guide to Murder (2020)
Body on the Island (2021)
I know for a fact that Victoria did try it at home to make sure that it worked…
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haha! Mental note made to not accept any dinner invites to her house…especially if she has a portcullis and a moat!
I have The Smart Woman’s Guide to Murder which I really must get to!
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The first book is set a snow bound country house so is definitely a good winter read, (preferably with a hot chocolate and biscuit).
Thanks for the review. 😊 I’m glad to hear that this is a good one, as I enjoyed the first two instalments in the series, and have the third one on my Kindle TBR… It’s exciting to hear that a fourth entry is in the pipeline!
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Yes Victoria’s writing speed is very impressive! I hope you enjoy the third one.
[…] so each to their own. That means that my Book of the Month for Fiction goes to Victoria Dowd’s The Supper Club Murders (2021). This mystery has a well-thought out and sinister murder plot at its core and is told with a […]
[…] suspects, then how could anyone else have done it? Comparing this impossible crime with the one in The Supper Club Murders (2021), I think I found the solution less satisfying. It is one which quickly occurred to me and […]