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Mystery author #26: Catherine Aird

Title: Henrietta Who?
Series detective: Detective Inspector Sloan
No. in series: 2
Year of publication: 1968
Type of mystery: Murder, identity
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: Rural England, 20th century, post WW2

Story: Grace Jenkins is found dead, a hit-and-run victim, in the middle of a village road, and her autopsy shows two things: her death was no accident and she can't possibly be the biological mother of Henrietta, the young woman she has brought up as her daughter. But who was she then, and what's more important: who is Henrietta? She and her boyfriend, and DI Sloan and his men race to try to find the answers, which prove to be, if not entirely unexpected for the reader, rather shocking for the characters.

Review: Here is a genuine old-fashioned mystery with a classical twist. I can't say too much about it, as the whole story hinges of it, but it is about identity that may or may not have to do with the murders that take place in the story. The reader of course suspects certain things about Henrietta right away, and is either disappointed or happy when they turn out to be true. There is only one early clue that points in the direction of the killer, and it is so small that you can miss it if you blink at the wrong moment, but once the police have established who their favourite suspect is, the reader has pretty much figured out the same thing as DI Sloan.

Rating: A somewhat predictable but enjoyable mystery about murder and identity. 3+ stars.
Title: The Body Politic
Series detective: Detective Inspector Sloan
No. in series: 13
Year of publication: 1989
Type of mystery: Murder, whodunnit, whydunnit
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: England, 20th century, post WW2

Mining engineer Alan Ottershaw accidentally kills a man in a (fictional) Arab country, which calls for an automatic sentence of death. He escapes to England but dies while participating in the re-enactment of a medieval battle. His death seems to be natural but after the cremation something mysterious is found among his ashes that indicates he could have been murdered. The mining company and the British government had good reasons for wanting him dead, as the country involved was the only country in the world where a certain (fictional) a metal important in some way for the military was mined, and the king had announced that unless Ottershaw be handed over, he would confiscate the company's assets in the country and drive them out. DI Sloan is at first baffled by the case, but things start to become clear once he begins to recreate what happened on the day of the battle re-enactment.

Rating: Well plotted story but rather colourless writing. 2+ stars.
Title: After effects
Series detective: Detective Inspector Sloan
No. in series: 15
Year of publication: 1996
Type of mystery: Murder, whodunnit, whydunnit
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: England, 20th century, post WW2

Story: When a suspicious relative complains to the police about the death of his grandmother, who was taking part in a clinical drug trial, the West Calleshire police begin a standard suspicious death investigation that quickly turns into one of murder when the doctor directing the trials is found murdered, his suicide having been unsuccessfully faked. The pharmaceutical company directors seem to have something to hide, and some animal rights activists who oppose animal drug testing are also under suspicion. It is up to Sloan and co. to unravel the mystery and find out whodunnit and why.

Rating: A twisty but somewhat colourless mystery. 2+ stars.

Author & series review:
The DI Sloan series celebrated its 40th anniversary this year, and the books number 21, the latest having been published in 2005. As in all series about the same people that cover such a long time, the author has, at least in the two newer books I read, been very careful not to make them too easy to date, in case anyone wonders why Sloan has not risen higher in the police force in all this time, and in fact seems to be pretty much the same age in all the books. As in many cosy series, there is a certain timelessness about the stories which means they could have taken place any time from the end of World War II to the end of the 20th century, or perhaps it's better to say that they happen in a sort of time vacuum.

Aird does not spend a lot of words on characterisation, and the stories are for the most part made up of narrative. I wish I could say something positive about the writing style, but I must admit that it is rather bland, and it is the plotting that makes the reader what to read on, not the writing. Aird is good at carefully hiding key clues so that if the books are not read with full attention, they can easily be missed. The first, and in my opinion, the best of the three, is predictable to a point, but only because it is about a classic mystery theme that has pretty much been covered in all possible ways, namely identity. Once one has figured out that identity, the killer is obvious, even though there are not a whole lot of actual clues. The latter two books, however, are more deviously plotted and the resolutions are somewhat unexpected.

These are all books you read for the plot, not for sparkling dialogue, characterisations or excellent writing, although there is some humour in them. I don't think I will especially seek out books by Aird in the future, but I have nothing against reading more of them, should the opportunity present itself.


Anonymous said…
I once, years ago, read a book by her that I thought was excellent. Of course, not being efficient like you, I can't recall the title but it might have been "His Burial Too" -- maybe they also made a film of it? I read quite a few of Aird's books since, but like you found them very uneven. I don't particularly seek her out now. But the general feeling I've come away from her with is that she's a good, solid author, sometimes quite lively but sometimes a bit flat and unrealistic.

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