Top mysteries challenge review: Penny Black by Susan Moody

I finally found the book (under the driver's seat of my car), so here is the review.

Year of publication: 1984
Series and no.: Penny Wanawake, no. 1.
Genre: Mystery
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Amateur (photographer)
Setting & time: Washington D.C., USA; 1980s.

Photographer Penny Wanawake is shocked to discover that a friend of hers has been stabbed to death in a restroom at Los Angeles airport. Her search for the killer takes her to Washington D.C., into the company of the city’s diplomatic and political elite, made easy by her connections: her father is a diplomat and her mother an English Lady. Once in Washington, she delves into the world of orchid breeders where a fierce competition is taking place to be the first to breed a "black" orchid. She also uncovers some seedy secrets that someone may just be willing to kill to keep under cover.

Penny Wanawake was, when the first book was published, quite an unusual and exotic detective: a six-foot tall photographer of African and English descent with connections among the world’s diplomatic set and aristocracy, educated at the best private schools and keeping company with thieves. She is polished, erudite, funny and sexy, but unfortunately, with her frequent sarcastic quips, Penny also comes across as somewhat bitter at times. While it may sound like a cliché, I kept seeing her as resembling Grace Jones in my mind’s eye while reading the book, only not quite as fierce (although I don’t remember if Jones ever wore her hair in beaded cornrows).

One thing I really liked about the story was that as a first-time Penny is believable. She is genuinely shocked and saddened by the murders, she makes mistakes and advances theories without having anything to go on other than dislike for the suspects. But she also shows a keen talent for reasoning and eliminating suspects once she is able to look past personal likes and dislikes. In that way she is more realistic than many of the first-time amateur sleuths I’ve read about.

The story is sleek and chic and full enough of twists to delight any mystery lover, and for an author’s first book it is very good, but it has a lead character who is amoral in certain respects and so is not for people who believe that detectives should be completely honest people.

Rating: An interesting and exotic mystery. 3+ stars.

Books left in challenge: 97

Awards and nominations: None that I know of.


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