Murder at the Brightwell is a charming novel that evokes many of the tropes and elements of the Golden Age mystery novel as well as the society comedies of the time. Stylistically it falls comfortably between being a historical mystery and a literary pastiche, perhaps being too modern in sentiment to be entirely either.
Regardless of how you categorize or label the novel it is a joy and that in large part comes down to its characterization. Our lead, Amory Ames, is a smart, witty and capable woman who has been left frustrated and disappointed by her marriage to the charming but reckless playboy Milo who she sees more of in the society pages and gossip columns than she does in person.
Years before the novel began she threw over her solid, dependable fiancé, Gil, to run off with and marry Milo on an impulse. Now Gil has turned up at her home to ask her to stay with him at the Brightwell Hotel in the hopes that she will speak with his sister about her experiences and scare her off marrying her own version of Milo, the dashing Rupert Howe.
Their plan is quickly derailed when, shortly after they arrive, they find Rupert murdered. Gil is arrested for the crime and Amory is determined that she will find some evidence to exonerate him, all the while dealing with her confusion about how she feels about him. And, if that wasn’t complicated enough, Milo turns up at the hotel and is soon drawn into the investigation himself.
If ever someone acquires the movie rights to this book and a time machine capable of going back and catching actors at the right age I am absolutely sure I can cast that movie. To me, Milo is Rupert Graves in the mid-to-late 90s or possibly a James Purefoy from around the time he did Rome. Dark, dashing and utterly charming with a little pinch of self-obsessed ass thrown into the mix. Amory is an Emma Thompson-type being confident, cutting and dignified in the most awkward and embarrassing of scenarios. As for Gil, read a solid and dependable Matthew Macfadyen.
Now, wouldn’t you want to see that movie?
I rarely read a story and imagine it being acted out – I am not that visual a reader – but this book so perfectly pitches its characters that I think most readers will be able to associate them with an analog. That does not mean that I think those characters are simplistic; Amory and Milo’s feelings about their dysfunctional relationship are surprisingly complex and I imagine many readers would feel conflicted about whether they would be happier apart.
The pair soon find themselves working together, with slightly different objectives, to prove Gil’s innocence. As a sleuthing team they are a highly entertaining pair but then I have always been a fan of bickering dialogue. I found their reasons for getting involved in this case credible and I appreciated that the tension between those characters at times inspires them to fresh discoveries and at others threatens to derail the whole case.
To my delight, that case was actually a pretty solid mystery complete with a good array of suspects and clues for Amory and Milo to consider as well as a healthy supply of red herrings to throw our detectives off the trail. The solution is unlikely to surprise many readers but I thoroughly enjoyed the process of getting there and felt satisfied by the conclusion.
Some may feel that the mystery plot is overshadowed by the romance elements. Others may regard the love triangle as lopsided with one man clearly set up as the character Amory will pick. Both of these complaints are justified, although neither troubled me. The romantic angle of the book is important because it has a bearing on how Amory and Milo are working together and it provides the motivation for the investigation in the first place.
Murder at the Brightwell may not be for everyone but I had a very enjoyable time reading it. The characters and setting are lively, the dialogue is witty and the mystery itself entertains. Weaver clearly has an enormous affection for the era of detective fiction she evokes and while this does not match the best of those for ingenuity, it certainly does for charm.