08 November 2011

Death at Wentwater Court by Carola Dunn

If you’re sensitive to SPOILERS, don’t read beyond the plot summary.

I noticed this book because of the cover, which is reminiscent of an old-fashioned children's book (until you look closer and notice the skull-and-crossbones snowflakes).

Genre: Murder mystery
Year of publication: 1994 (this edition 2009)
Type of mystery: Historical cosy.
No. in series: 1
Series detective: Daisy Dalrymple

Type of investigator: Amateur (and police)
Setting & time: England, 1920s

The Honourable Miss Daisy Dalrymple arrives at Wentwater Court just after the beginning of the new year to write and photograph a story for Town & Country magazine. She already knows a couple of young people there, but in addition she meets Lord Wentwater, his children and his lovely young second wife, who seems to be very troubled and afraid of their houseguest, Lord Astwick.

When Astwick is found drowned in the skating pond, everyone assumes it was an accident, but when the police arrive on the scene, Daisy is able to point out to handsome Chief Inspector Alec Fletcher that something isn’t quite right about the scene. There ensues a delicate investigation into matters, and it turns out almost everyone staying at Wentwater Court could have had a motive for murdering Astwick.

I am in two minds about this novel. On the one hand it is smoothly written, has a lovely flavour of the Golden Age mysteries that I love reading and the author plays fair with the reader as regards clues. On the other hand, Daisy, while being a very likeable character to begin with, turns out to be a bit of a Mary Sue. She is plucky, capable, independent and everyone likes her so much that they immediately trust her and tell her their troubles and secrets. Even the handsome Scotland Yard officer takes her into his confidence after a short acquaintance by having her take shorthand while he interrogates the suspects, without having first done the double-checking necessary to take her off the suspect list.The only flaw she seems to have is not being very good at taking shorthand, and not being a good speller. Even near the end, when she turns out to be an arrant (not to mention arrogant) class snob who likes to play God, it is put forward in such a way as to make it look like a positive trait, thus emphasising the Mary-Sue-ness rather than removing it.

Also, Daisy doesn’t really solve the case. She seems to be on the verge of it but never reaches a definitely reasoned conclusion, instead drawing a confession out of the killer by accidentally startling him into it. The killer confesses too easily and his accessory does too, and Daisy believes them too easily. One would think that a story told in such perfect accord and harmony as that of the killer and his accessory would arouse suspicions, but Daisy takes it at face value – I get the feeling it’s just because they are of her class and she likes them. In fact, a lot of people take too many things at face value in this novel. Additionally, the police officer is too easily placated when he finds out about the trick Daisy has played on the police (even if he is a bit sweet on her) and his superior seems too eager to take part in a deception at the end.

As for the resolution, another reader might not agree, but I happen to think that just because someone deserved to die, it doesn’t absolve the killer of the guilt not does it mean he shouldn’t have to face justice. It can be poetic or karmic as well as legal justice, but in my mind there has to be some kind of justice, and being separated from the woman he loves is not enough. Likewise, among the things that enrage me in detective stories are endings in which someone gets away with a crime because of their social position or wealth. Let's face it: cosy detective stories are fantasies and we, the readers, expect good old-fashioned justice - not bleak social realism.

I feel Dunn deserves a thumbs up for the pitch-perfect Golden Era style and fair play, but a thumbs down for much of the rest of the story, so I am only giving it 2 stars. However, I did like the style and some of the plotting enough that I am not going to let the low grade stop me from reading more, and as a matter of fact I bought two books - the other one is the 17th in the series and it will be interesting to see what has changed (hopefully for the better).

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