Today’s read came back out a few months ago and it is the fourth book in the Smart Woman’s Mystery series, a series I have been looking forward to diving back into.
‘Nineteen guests with secrets to hide. One exclusive party on a private island. An invitation to die for? Ursula Smart and her mother, Pandora, wangle an invite to crime-fiction powerhouse Anthony Lovell’s latest book launch, a weekend-long bash at his private island home. They’re ready for an evening of wining, dining and hobnobbing. But trouble always seems to follow the Smart women. Late that night, Ursula is woken up by blood-curdling screams. Anthony is dead. Poisoned by the highlight of the evening feast, the fugu fillet. If prepared incorrectly, this rare Japanese delicacy is deadly. Who killed him? When the accused is put on trial, the Smart women are called as witnesses. But Ursula’s not convinced the police have the right person. Is asking questions asking for trouble?’
Victoria Dowd diverges from the usual structure of the mysteries in her series and has the chapters flit from a present-day trial at the Old Bailey, which the Smart Women are attending, to chapters which provide a retrospective on the time leading up to the murder and subsequent events; based on what Ursula and the others in party saw and heard. This produces a different kind of narrative as normally the Smart Women get to do their own amateur investigating at the time of the death, whereas in A Book of Murder they are swiftly interviewed by the police, before being sent home. I am unsure if this approach best suits the Smart Women as it places them into a more passive position. Furthermore, this position arguably leads to the plot slowing down considerably. Firstly, this is because the retrospective chapters do not move very quickly, so it takes most of the book for past events to be revealed and secondly, in place of active sleuthing, the more passive position encourages Ursula’s continued musings on grief and death, which can often be induced by the environment she is in at the time. These types of reflections dominated the text, in a way which reminded me of the first book in the series, The Smart Woman’s Guide to Murder (2020). I think perhaps this aspect felt repetitive. I think the moment when Ursula successfully propels herself into intervening in the case is left too late, and this provides a more languid, rather than dynamic story. There is drama to conclude the story but viewed in conjunction with the rest of the plot, it felt forced.
This is the second occasion in the series when the mystery concerns a locked room/impossible murder and fans of such mysteries will be glad to hear that the author distinguishes such a term from a closed set of suspects. With the use of CCTV, amongst other evidence, it seems like only one person could have done the crime, but if they didn’t, as Ursula growingly 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 consequently, it felt anti-climactic.
Dowd’s past experience working in the legal profession very much informs the setting of today’s book under review and this is evident from the opening chapter, which makes interesting use of the history of the Old Bailey. This experience is also used for humorous purposes during the trial itself, from scathing remarks from the judge to descriptions of key legal characters. For example: ‘Mr Bartholomew Gilbert QC was a tall, distinguished wraith who had the sort of face that cast doubt on everyone’s innocence, including his own.’ I enjoyed watching the different takes the Smart Women quartet had on the trial and how it was conducted. We have an eager beaver in Bridget who is keen to make notes, in contrast to Pandora who comments that the court ‘have managed to strangle all the life of the trial.’ This is something Ursula concurs with: ‘The relentless minutiae of the evidence was unquestionably dull for everyone. It was like going to see a war film that outlined the specifications of every single gun, rifle and bullet before the action could even start.’
When I encountered the Smart Women in the first book of the series, they certainly won the most unpleasant group of people award. However, it has been interesting to see in more than one of the subsequent books their disagreeableness outdone by other people. It is always worrying when other characters can make the Smart Women look kind and supportive! There is a patch where the unpleasantness gets a bit oppressive, but thankfully murder soon strikes to dispel it, (yes that does sound rather odd, even to me who wrote the sentence, but it’s true). I enjoyed the prologue from A Book of Murder, as it is an excerpt from Pandora’s blog. Her viewpoint on life is centred on her own importance and comedy comes into play when the reader notices the gap between Pandora’s perceptions and reality. In some ways you could say Pandora is a warped alcohol dependent version of Hyacinth Bucket from Keeping Up Appearances. Yet I think this is a character who has grown on me over the time and whilst I would not want to be friends with Pandora, no matter how much you paid me, I find her a very interesting person to read about. The judge overseeing the trial in the book was also a favourite character of mine in the story.
Source: Review Copy (Joffe Books)
See also: Rekha and the Puzzle Doctor have also reviewed this title.
P. S. At one point in the book a TV show is mentioned called Bargain Basement Book Bonanza. We are told that it is ‘a new TV book club where members of the public were given one minute to grab as many books as they could from various bins and then discuss with the authors why they were attracted to those particular titles and covers.’ If there could be a Golden Aged Detective themed version of this, (minus talking to the authors obviously), I would definitely be up for it!
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