Mystery author #17: Dorothy Cannell
Title: The Thin Woman
Series detective: Ellie Simons, aided by Bentley Haskell
No. in series: 1
Year of publication: 1984
Type of mystery: Cosy w/ treasure hunt, possible murder, murder attempts
Type of investigator: Amateurs
Setting & time: England, 1980’s
Some themes: Dieting, insecurity, missing persons
Story: Interior decorator Ellie Simons is fat and insecure and has always been made to feel inferior by her beautiful cousin Vanessa. When she is invited, along with all her other relatives (Vanessa included), to Merlin’s Court, her eccentric uncle’s fairy-tale castle, for a family weekend, she hires handsome Bentley Haskell, a writer who moonlights as a social escort, to accompany her and pretend to be her boyfriend. Uncle Merlin is not only eccentric, but also rich, and most of the relatives only come in the hope of getting a mention in his will. When he dies shortly afterwards, Ellie is stunned to learn that she and Ben have been left Merlin’s Court and most of Merlin’s considerable riches, with the condition that a) she lose 63 pounds, b) he write a book without a word of smut in it, and c) they find the treasure connected with the house. All this they must do while living in the house and they only have six months. Should they fail, the vulturine relatives will get everything. Someone seems to want to help them to succeed by sending them clues. Through one clue Ellie discovers that there is some mystery surrounding the death of Merlin’s mother and tries, with the help of the vicar, to find out how she died. Before long, it becomes apparent that someone wants them to fail: a strategically placed box of chocolates trips Ellie up on her road to losing weight and Ben’s manuscript is stolen and doused with bleach. These incidents get increasingly serious and before long it seems that someone is attempting to murder Ellie. There are plenty of suspects: Ellie’s relatives, the local vicar, the new housekeeper and the suddenly sprightly old gardener.
Review: This is a very entertaining story which only barely manages to be a mystery in the classic sense, but does quite well as a modern one (i.e. The Classic Rules are bent more than a little). Ellie, who tells the story, thinks a lot about the mysterious events taking place but doesn't do much actual sleuting, i.e. following up on clues and asking around (I could have pointed out several things for her to investigate). In fact, she only follows one line of clues while other, rather obvious ones, gather up for no-one but the reader to follow. Although Ben finally figures out who the villain is, just in time to nearly get murdered along with Ellie and another character, this discovery happens off-stage and the reader does not get to see how he put the clues together. Happily, Cannell does not cheat the reader of clues - there are enough clues here to make anyone happy, but we only get to see a few of them actually used for anything, which is the weakest part of the story structure.
There is an unexpected twist in the story about half-way through, when what promised to be a crazy treasure hunt turns into something else. This twist really makes one wonder why several of the characters were brought in and fleshed out only to remain almost unseen until near the end when all they did was appear briefly and then disappear again, breaking that all-important convention of story-telling: do not introduce more characters than are necessary for the story. All I can think of is that Cannell was already planning more stories and wanted to set the stage and introduce them beforehand, because all they do here is act as a very annoying, very big and very obvious red herring.
Characterisation is skilful. Since Ellie is the storyteller, we see all the characters through her eyes, and naturally she is the best developed character. Her insecurity over being fat is very realistic and is quite common in overweight people. Her dieting, however, is unrealistically easy – it takes more than just healthy eating with lots of vegetables and very little exercise to lose 28,5 kilos in 6 months – but the insecurities and feeling sick after a relapse are very realistically described. Ben is rescued from being a typically aloof sexy love interest by his apparently contradictory behaviour and his sense of humour and the most surprising minor characters are shown to have unexpected depths in the course of the narrative and come alive before one’s eyes.
The big twist is rather obvious, the identity of the villain slightly (but only slightly) more difficult, and the location of the treasure is an interesting twist which a clever reader will have had figured out long before Ellie and Ben.
Rating: An entertaining mystery with unexpected turns and twists. 3+ stars.
Since this is a first book, I have good hopes for the next ones in the series and intend to get the two available from the library once I renew my library card. I have already requested one from TitleTrader and look forward to reading it.
P.S. I din't like the cover. While pretty when considered as commercial artwork, the floral design with the gold locket makes it look like a classy romance novel and not a mystery. Only the title, a parody of The Thin Man, and the cover blurb hint that it may be a mystery. Another annoyance is that the author's name is in bigger lettering than the title, an obvious hint that this is a reprint after the author has had a bestseller. This kind of cover always makes me suspect that the book is considered worth reading only because it was written by this particular author, and not because it's a good story.