LIKE many dull little seaside towns, down-at-heel Stormhaven has a lot going on under the surface. It boasts both a discreet but busy brothel and a secretive Etiquette Society, whose self-appointed task is to name and shame anyone who transgresses its standards. Local businesses live in fear of one of its stickers, always accompanied by damning coverage in the local paper.
When Simon Parke’s ex-monk amateur sleuth, Abbot Peter, gives a talk to one of its meetings, he finds himself faced with a woman he hasn’t seen for 40 years. Rosemary nursed him after a nervous breakdown, and he’s kept a lit candle in the window for her ever since.
She’s not the only unusual society member. There’s Her Honour Blessings N’Dayo, that rarest of creatures, a black female judge; Martin Channing, the paper’s obnoxious editor; much decorated Trevor, who left a glittering military career to stack shelves in a supermarket; and lecherous Geoff, slimy estate agent.
After Rosemary’s murder in the town’s derelict mental hospital it emerges that she owned the brothel, and Peter and his niece, feisty DI Tasmin Shah, take the case on.
This is the detective’s fifth outing. The dialogue between the duo crackles as crisply as ever, even if Tasmin is becoming less combative with increasing age and confidence. Parke subverts the stereotypes of brothel owner and sex worker. Rosemary set up her business to provide safe working conditions for those who were selling sex anyway, and the two girls regard it as a well-paid job, with better customer relations than other businesses.
It is cunningly plotted, scary, and darkly funny. Peter was hospitalised for throwing hymn books at a preacher with whom he disagreed, and punching a steward who tried to intervene. Madness is a matter of your point of view.
Fiona Hook is a writer and EFL teacher.
The Indecent Death of a Madam
Marylebone House £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9