I have mentioned before about my bad habit of buying sets of books for a rainy day. Often I seize on sales or secondhand book store finds but sometimes I just decide to go all-in on an author. Simon Brett is one such writer.
I credit Brett’s Charles Paris mysteries as being one of the series that inspired me to become a fan of crime fiction. Recognizing that I find his work engaging, I invested in copies of most of his other books though I had never quite got around to reading them until recently.
Now here I am diverging from my usual approach to trying a new series as I normally like to read a series in order. It’s not that I have any problem with people dipping into a series – it’s just what works for me as I like to see how a series concept, its characters and themes develop over time. What prompted me to break sequence for this book however was the news that is was about to be reissued by Black Thorn Books. It seemed to me that it might be a good idea to try and time a review around the time that edition came out…
The book opens at Fethering Library where Burton St. Clair, the author of the bestseller Stray Leaves in Autumn, is giving a somewhat pretentious talk about his work to a small gathering of avid readers and writers. Among them is Jude though she does not think much of his masterpiece, nor of the man himself having known him some years previously when he had been married to one of her friends and gone by the name Al Sinclair.
After a couple of awkward moments in the question and answer portion of the evening, the attendees enjoy a glass of wine and the chance to socialize. Burton comes to talk with her and offers her a lift home which she initially accepts but she flees the car when he makes a pass at her. She walks home instead, sends a brief email to his ex-wife mentioning the meeting, takes a quick shower (in the hopes of washing away any traces of his wandering hands) and heads to bed.
She is surprised when the Police turn up at her door the next day. They tell her that St. Clair was found dead in his car, still parked outside the library, and they came to speak with her as the last person to see him alive. She soon realizes that they consider her a suspect, particularly when they hear about how they had known each other in the past, and she decides to do a bit of snooping around herself in the hope that she can prove herself innocent…
Having your sleuth investigate to prove their innocence is a pretty familiar starting point for a mystery but I think Brett uses it pretty effectively here. The circumstances of the murder are certainly suspicious and while we may never suspect Jude based on experienced her viewpoint of events, we can certainly see why it looks bad for her. The victim died in the place she left him. When further details of how he died come out things look even worse. Yet Brett does not go overboard with the sleuth under suspicion trope – the Police certainly don’t press her as hard as we might suppose. Instead she is being proactive, trying to get ahead of their questions.
Jude serves as the novels’ primary investigator, at least for its first half, but the other series regular Carole also gets in on the act later in the story. Being my first taste of the series I didn’t know much about either character prior to coming to this but Brett describes them well enough that I found it easy to get a grip on who they were and the differences between them. For the similarly uninitiated: Jude works as a healer and has had multiple relationships while Carole used to work in the civil service and likes to dote on her grandchildren. It is a sort of chalk and cheese relationship, yet they seem to get on pretty well, even though we don’t see much of them working together here.
The focus of their investigations is on finding someone else who knew St. Clair and, quite crucially, that he possessed a dangerous allergy to walnuts. This latter point is a substantial part of the reason Jude comes under suspicion and for much of the book she appears to be the only person who might have known that piece of information (though she claims she was unaware of it). This leads Jude and Carole to meet with several characters who might be suspects including a few members of the writing community – an aspiring but resentful writer, an airy, pretentious literary retreat organizer and a rather self-involved academic type – each of whom feel well-observed, no doubt drawing on Brett’s considerable experience of writer-types.
We also get several scenes set in the Fethering library and discussions of the challenges and changes taking place in British libraries. While there is often a comic edge to how Brett presents this information, I think he paints a pretty accurate picture of the funding challenges currently being felt by British libraries and the way the sector has responded to them with an emphasis on more services and activities being led by volunteers.
Another theme Brett discusses is that of eastern European immigration and the xenophobia that has arisen in some communities. Here I think the approach feels a little more awkwardly handled, in part because of the way Zosia, a barmaid, is used. She is used to describe the problem but the choice to present all of the information from a single perspective makes it feel a little static and awkward. It may have been better to have multiple voices discussing the issue or at least have some of the reflections about perceptions of the Polish community be made by Carole.
While the investigation presents some interesting perspectives on these issues, it is perhaps less clue-driven than some readers might hope. In fact clues are rather thin on the ground for most of the book with the solution basically emerging from questioning in the investigation. I don’t mind this approach but it does seem a little at odds with the golden age style Brett directly evokes throughout the story, feeling more procedural in nature.
That being said, I did appreciate that there is a cleverly placed clue that I totally failed to notice the significance of but which would point to the murderer’s identity for those who do pick up on it. It is directly addressed during the confrontation with the murderer so armchair detectives do at least have a chance of solving it, even if I wish there were a few more clues!
Overall I would describe my first taste of Fethering to be successful. Certainly I liked the way Brett is able to evoke the feeling of life in a community and I was interested in the relationship between Jude and Carole, even if they didn’t interact quite as much as I would have hoped here. I am sure that I will make further trips to Fethering so if you are well-versed in the series and are able to make recommendations I would appreciate them!
Puzzle Doctor reviews this at In Search of the Classic Mystery describing it as an ‘easy, fun read’.