Elspeth Gray, a romance novelist in her mid-thirties, has been living in All Hallows (a small town in New York) following her divorce. She treads safe and unthreatening ground with her books, and proclaims her distaste for crime novels. However, following a reading of her latest book at the local bookshop, Inkwell Books, she finds a dead body: the body being that of Jasper Wade, a successful and wealthy writer of crime fiction who lives in the town. The way the body’s been killed and left seems to mirror the method used in one of Jasper’s own novels, and the police soon come to the conclusion that Jasper’s put-upon wife, Nora, whom he was about to divorce for his assistant, Violet, was the culprit. Reluctantly, Elspeth and her much more enthusiastic friend, Julia, investigate for themselves.
Naturally, the potential suspects are a fairly tight-knit bunch and could include Alex Ware, Jasper’s brother, whose real estate business was on the verge of crashing, or Crispin Wickford, proprietor of the local newspaper who had been gambling; or Sabrina Elliot, once engaged to Jasper but later humiliatingly jilted by him. Complicating Elspeth’s personal life is the re-appearance of Grant, her ex-husband, and his fiancée, Ainsley, a reporter, and a new arrival in town, Edgar Archer, as well as Bootsie Spright, whose own efforts at the romance genre head more into the Fifty Shades of Grey territory than Elspeth’s tamer efforts.
This was an entertaining book, rather wry, with Elspeth openly mocking her chosen genre, and some amusing moments (such as the bits which poke fun at the crime-solving-cat kind of mystery novel). In explaining to Jasper the hackneyed plots which characterise the mystery genre, Elspeth in fact sets the tone for this novel itself. The tone is thus a bit self-referential and also rather schizophrenic: the narrative remarks seem to imply a contempt for the genre which the novel itself evidently does not. This ironic view, instead of amusing the reader, instead gives a sensation of the whole book being rather calculated: almost, but not quite, a pastiche of the genre. Elspeth and her friends are stuck in a hackneyed situation but fail to recognise it, though they do make reference to the clichés of the mystery genre. Although the plot is workmanlike enough, and some of the characters are entertaining, Elspeth herself is a bit bland. While this is quite realistic for a writer (and there are a couple of touches which bring her character momentarily to life), it seems wrong for a mystery novel’s protagonist and narrator to be so passive and – dare one say it – boring.
While this may be a convention of the ‘cosy’ mysteries (of which Julia, for example, is a fan), I also felt that there were a few problems: characterisation is subordinated to the conveniences of the plot, except in the minor characters such as Elspeth’s agent Paula and the cheerful Bootsie, or Mrs Jennings, who appears to have crept into the narrative from another novel. Secondly, the romantic triangle in which Elspeth finds herself seems forced; and thirdly, the cast of characters is overwhelmingly white and middle-class (apart from Mrs Jennings). My knowledge of New York commuter towns is culled almost entirely from Joyce Carol Oates’ far less cosy My Sister, My Love, so maybe this is entirely accurate, but it seems to me that it would have worked better in a small town in the Mid-West where the population is more homogenous.
So, in short, it’s a bit of a calculated effort, but worth reading if you like this kind of mystery novel, and with potential for more if McCarthy can disguise the artifice.
Published by: Attica Books (2013)
I received a free copy of the e-book from the author.