Murder by Suspicion
Severn House £19.99
The Country House Murders: A 1930s murder mystery
Marylebone House £8.99
Church Times Bookshop £8.10
THE dark side of charitable giving lies behind the complicated plot of Veronica Heley’s novel Murder by Suspicion.
Ellie Quicke has inherited a large sum of money, which she has put in a trust, and is deciding which charities to endow. A local religious organisation,The Vision, is on the list. Claire, recommended by Ellie’s daughter, Diana, as a carer for Rose, Ellie’s elderly housekeeper, while Ellie is away on a visit to the US, is associated with it. When Ellie returns, she finds upsetting alterations made by Claire to her home — furniture moved, central heating turned off, painters arriving to change colours — and when Ambrose, the charismatic leader of The Vision, appears, Ellie begins to see what’s going on.
There’s a large cast of characters without enough background detail to anchor them or to explain their attitudes, though no doubt if I had read another Ellie Quicke Mystery, (there are 15), I would have been more clued up. Even Ellie’s daughter, Diana, is strangely harsh and unfeeling: “Typically, Diana’s opening words were not an invitation to come in and have a cup of tea, but ‘What do you want?’”
Heley doesn’t fill us in on why Diana should be so unkind to her mother, and herein lies the main weakness of this complex and often powerful novel about betrayal, sexual degradation, and murder. Many of Heley’s large cast of characters behave in distressing and seriously unpleasant ways, yet the emotional tension of the book remains flat and uniform. This is partly because Heley tends to tell, not show, and her extensive use of dialogue is noisy and tonally unvaried. It’s a complex, interesting plot, but I longed for more subtleties of pace and tone.
In The Country House Murders, it is the spring of 1934, and Tom Morris writes a letter to his tutor and mentor C. S. Lewis: “Dear Jack, I think I’m about to be arrested and charged with murder.” The stylistic contrast with the frenetic pace of Murder by Suspicion couldn’t be clearer, their settings separated by 80 years. Yet despite this more leisurely world, Richards creates a greater narrative tension from the moment his story opens: a group of seven people sit around a garden table, all eating slices of cake, but one person suddenly collapses — instant death by cyanide. A horrifying moment, and Tom, the outsider invited to Plumwood Hall to catalogue its valuable library (including a 1597 edition of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet), is regarded as the most likely culprit by the local police.
When the “how” is finally revealed by Lewis, who’s rushed to the scene to solve this mystery and save Tom Morris from the gallows, it’s satisfyingly unexpected. Kel Richards is a master at creating a 1930s background — long may his series continue.
Peggy Woodford is a novelist.