Have you been on tenterhooks for weeks, wondering what my cryptic comment of last time meant, about 2015 having gotten a whole lot more interesting? Here you go: I start a new job in a week, as Assistant Dean of Undergraduate Education, Harvard College. It's about as low on the decanal totem pole as you can get, but I'm pretty excited.
But enough about me, how about this latest entry from in Barbara Cleverly's doughty Joe Sandilands series, Enter Pale Death (Soho Crime, 2014)?
My issues with this novel were:
1. The Downton-derivativity, as mentioned. The characters map from the Dowager down to the cook, and there is almost priceless art involved - a Canaletto instead of a della Francesca, but you get the idea. Although, to be fair, there is no Cora or interestingly complex daughters. And there is a ne'er-do-well younger son, which is kind of intriguing, or would be, if he were better developed as a character.
2. You clearly have to have followed Joe's story back from India in order to really understand all the characters. Said it before, will say it again, reading series out of order drives me nuts.
3. The timing is very hard to follow until we get to the actual house party event but even there, people are invited, but for when? Is the person Lily is set to observe in London the same as the fellow who asked Joe to help him re-acquire some stolen art? Are we supposed to know this or did I miss some clue?
4. A few too many threads, surely designed to be red herrings but serving more as distractions. Art, a Green Man, various romantic interests, murder, horses.
5. The horses themselves are not an issue, but the scene where Joe and Hunnyton meet some horses in a field - why do they stop there? who knows - is all rippling horseflesh pawing the air, overwritten to my taste. The author is making a point about ancient local knowledge of the Ways of the Horse which is actually kind of interesting, but it is yet another of these plot threads that you have to try and remember in case it is important, which it is not, particularly.
Finally, as the story draws to its conclusion, Our Hero Joe Sandilands is regularly having quiet conversations or preparing to ask someone some penetrating questions or laying the groundwork to catch the perp or otherwise gathering information that will be crucial to solving the case - but not letting us in on it. In other words, we follow his detective work, but we are not permitted to know what he's finding out. I hate this in detective fiction. It does prepare all the characters for a Big Reveal Scene at the end - a crime fiction trope so not inappropriate - but it makes the reader unsettled. Are we witnesses or suspects, inadvertently or purposely being left in the dark? Or are we fellow-detectives? How are we supposed to empathize with the protagonist (which surely we are, since he apparently has all these marvelous qualities - wit, stalwartness, brains, looks) if we aren't let in on what he is doing? I guess this is a technique to make the Hero the smartest guy in the room but I simply find it annoying.
Although it does occur to me that I find it charming when Hercule Poirot (as portrayed by David Suchet) does it, so maybe it is just the characters here aren't doing it for me.
This is way more detail than this book demands. I'm making this sound like a more complex novel than it is. It is not, it just feels disorganized, but that will not make you throw the book across the room. Look, if you like English Country House Murders, then this might be a good read for you because it is all there - the setting, the people, the gracious living. There is even a moat! But read the earlier Joe Sandilands before you get here. The stories set in India have a more interesting setting, and in his later years, Joe has become a little too wot-wot, jolly good, I say! for my taste.