Nice Day for a Murder opens at a family barbecue being held in Newtown in Sydney at the home of Steve, a visual artist. The family gathers to see his home and meet his new flatmate and almost all are secretly hoping that their dreaded Aunt Val will skip the event. They are all to be disappointed as she turns up, angrily criticising her daughter and immediately starts criticising the decoration, food choices and declares that she wants to take a pill for her headache and lie down.
When it comes time to serve the food the family decide to let her continue to sleep. Later in the event Steve’s brother Ben, a journalist, is coming back from the bathroom when he notices Aunt Val has a red lump on her forehead and her purse is lying open. On closer examination they find that she is dead and so all of the family members still at the event are called in to speak with the police.
From this point onwards we primarily follow Ben as he finds himself becoming the focus of the Police’s investigation. This is in part due to misfortune but also largely a result of his own inept handling of his interviews, coming off as defensive and evasive as he insists that he didn’t murder his aunt long before any post-mortem tests come back.
While Ben does possess some research skills and has professional experience of how to follow-up leads he is not a skillful investigator, rather Broadribb pitches him as a slightly irritable everyman who has been caught up in an unpleasant situation that he makes worse by his own inability to let justice take its course. This can make him a rather frustrating protagonist and yet I quite appreciated that his investigation doesn’t run entirely smoothly and that he makes mistakes as it helps to sell that this is a real amateur playing detective.
We spend only a couple of pages in the company of Aunt Val but it is easy to believe that such a character would irritate and offend all around her. The woman is established as being highly judgmental and lacking in any warmth or empathy while her relationships with her daughter and ex-husband are messy at best. Broadribb gives us several clear suspects to consider which is more than I might expect in a novella that is just 108 pages long though really there are just a couple who merit serious consideration.
It is here that I probably should address the issue of length because the novel’s page count plays a significant role both in the book’s strengths and in creating its weaknesses. Such a short page count means that almost anything that might be considered extraneous is not present: we jump right in at the start of the party and the book ends with the killer’s identity becoming known but even those two pivotal scenes are a couple of pages long at most.
This aggressive pacing is quite enticing in that it encourages the author to condense character relationships which can feel quite refreshing but some of the clues and important revelations feel a little rushed. In a few cases, characters’ motives are established in just a few paragraphs while the novella’s ending is so abrupt that it makes the piece feel unfinished. The approach lends itself to a punchy reading experience but I couldn’t help but feel it was a slightly incomplete one and I am not entirely certain that the reader gets enough information to be able to deduce an important element of the conclusion.
In spite of these frustrations, I did admire the author’s willingness to really trim down her narrative and I was pleasantly surprised at how strong some of the characterization is. One of my favorite sequences comes during Aunt Val’s funeral as Ben’s mother speaks affectionately about her dead sister and Ben thinks about the ways that her statements are either misleading or lies as I think it speaks well to the sometimes awkward nature of family relationships.
Nice Day for a Murder is a very competent, fast-paced mystery that had no difficulty holding my attention. While I think the streamlined storytelling style can be quite refreshing in the start and body of the novella, I do wish that the ending was not quite so abrupt and a little more time had been given over to explaining how Ben worked out some aspects of the solution. This does get close to being a very good read but issues with the pacing and balance threw it off.
Note: An edit to this review was made in response to a comment. In that same comment Santosh posts an explanation of the logic of the conclusion that I agree makes sense and is accurate to the story. I do still think though that the ending is abrupt and that the reader cannot expect to work out a character’s identity before the end (though they may guess).