Mystery author #50: Caroline Graham

At first I hesitated to include Caroline Graham in this challenge, as I have seen at least a dozen episodes of the television series based on the characters from the Barnaby books. However, I think I am justified in including her, since books and television are different mediums and I have not seen the episodes based on either of the books I read for the review (although I did watch Death of a Hollow Man after I read the book).

The first book in the series, The Killings at Badger’s Drift, made it onto the British Crime Writer’s Association list of The Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time, despite having won neither the Gold or Silver Dagger, but it must have come close because the books that did get these awards that year are also on the list. Clearly it was a very good year for the Daggers.

About the series:

Series detective:Detective Chief Inspector Barnaby
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: Causton, a fictional town in southern England, and the surrounding area; contemporary

The reviews:

Title: The Killings at Badger’s Drift
No. in series: 1
Year of publication: 1987
Type of mystery: Murder

An elderly woman sees something she shouldn’t have in the woods near the village of Badger’s Drift and ends up dead. Her friend convinces Detective Chief Inspector Barnaby to investigate her seemingly natural death as suspicious. An autopsy reveals that she was poisoned and an investigation of her house reveals that she was killed by someone who took great pains to make her death look accidental, but none of the neighbours seem to have seen anyone enter the house on the day of her death. Just as Barnaby is about to give up on the case another murder takes place, one that will lead him to a successful solution.

This is a near-perfect example of the Golden Era-type cosy mystery. It is deftly written, has an interesting cast of characters, all of them skilfully and sometimes humorously fleshed out, a complicated plot with a number of red herrings, and a thrilling, if somewhat melodramatic, resolution. It also has an ending of the kind that I hate with a passion, but in this particular case the author has managed to actually make it just realistic enough to be plausible.

Rating: A beautifully written and plotted cosy. 4+ stars.

Title: Death of a Hollow Man
No. in series: 2
Year of publication: 1989
Type of mystery: Murder

A clever murderer tampers with a prop, thus making the victim, an actor, do the actual dirty work of killing himself during the first performance of Amadeus by the Causton Dramatic Society. Barnaby’s investigation is both helped and hindered by the fact that he knows all the suspects, but finally he manages to sort out the tangled threads of the case and trap the killer into confessing.

Here Graham cleverly uses a number of classical mystery elements and plot twists, among them the theatre setting with a murder on stage in front of an audience, a victim who is made to carry out the actual murder, and one other classic element that I will refrain from mentioning, since the solution depends on it. The character descriptions and the descriptions of their interactions, while well written and even interesting as such, are too long and strike me as being filler material. This makes the lead-up to the actual murder too long – it takes place only after we have gotten to know the characters too intimately, after the middle of the book.

The use of flashforwards as blunt hints as to who did or didn’t do it is something a skilful mystery writer should not have to resort to, but Graham uses this device several times, and never as a red herring as one would expect from a story of this kind. This is very annoying (contrary to the previous book, where a flashworward is skilfully used to provide foreshadowing). That is not to say I didn’t enjoy the book, but the long lead-up to the crime and the character descriptions makes it more of a novel of manners than a murder mystery.

Rating: An enjoyable novel with too much description and not enough plot to be a really good mystery. 3 stars.

P.S. I loved the TV version.

I will definitely be on the lookout for more of Graham’s books, and will continue to watch the TV series.


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