Death by the Book
Growing up I saw a lot of black and white movies, many of them depicting the glamorous, high society world of the 1930s. The Drew Farthering novels do such an amazing job of capturing that era that when I read one I feel like I have stepped into one of those beloved classic films.
Recent tragic events have left Drew Farthering in desperate need of rewriting his will. Arranging to meet his solicitor at a hotel, he is surprised to instead find himself meeting with Chief Inspector Birdsong. It seems the family solicitor has been found murdered, an antique hatpin with the enigmatic message, “Advice to Jack”, piercing his chest. Assuring the inspector that he has no intention of involving himself in police business (as he did in the last murder), Drew returns home, planning to devote himself to mystery book reading and the wooing of the lovely, coy Madeline Parker.
Home, however, is not how he had left it. It seems they are the recipients of an unexpected visit by Madeline’s Aunt Ruth, a formidable curmudgeon determined to bring Madeline home to the States. Drew knows he will have to use all his charm and wit to keep his beloved firmly in England, especially since the lady in question refuses to give a definitive answer to his many proposals! A few days into the visit, he finds himself quite distressed. Seeking relaxation away from the battlefield his home has become, Drew heads to his club to play a round of golf. But once more, rather than meeting with the people he expects he finds himself dealing with Chief Inspector Birdsong. It seems another body has been discovered, with a hatpin securing yet another cryptic message to the victim.
Drew once more promises to steer clear of the investigation but when a young shop girl’s tearful testimony points to the first victim’s double life, the widow asks for his help in clearing her husband’s name. Soon Drew finds himself in the middle of a family drama involving a belligerent son, a cheating wife and a weeping mistress. Then two more bodies are added to the mix and he finds himself truly flummoxed. How do all these people fit together? Why are the crimes all centered around people Drew knows or locations he visits? And is it just coincidence that each body is found just a little bit closer to Farthering Place?
“Come quickly, I am tasting stars,” is Dom Perignon’s famous quote regarding his first taste of Champagne, and that is a fairly apt description of how this book reads. It’s bubbly, rich, a tiny bit sweet and a little bit intoxicating. It combines wit, cheer and romance with the dark business of murder and does an impressive job of it.
The best part of this bubbly brew is the characters. Drew is a golden boy, wealthy, handsome, charming and prodigiously clever. He approaches murder in the same way he would a clever puzzle, moving and testing the pieces until they fit into an exact, perfect whole. This novel rests mostly on his shoulders and he carries the weight well, taking the reader on a fun, challenging journey with him as he solves the riddle of the hatpin murders.
Equally interesting were Inspector Birdsong, who is a bit more fleshed out in this tale, and Nick, who shows a more serious side in this story. Both work excellently as foils for the sagacious Drew, one providing comic relief and witty banter and the other providing a sort of stodgy balance.
When I say that the novel rests mostly with Drew I mean that leading lady Madeline plays almost no part in the solving of the case. In fact, she is mostly window dressing. And like curtains that you thought would be perfect but wind up clashing with your furniture, she is mostly annoying. She is, supposedly, trying to determine if the delightful Drew is worth giving up home for. Yet she spends relatively little time with Drew and seems instead determined to flirt with handsome strangers or appease her aunt’s nasty temper at every turn. My one quibble with the book in fact was Madeline. She was less a love interest and more a ball and chain.
But she is the only fly in our otherwise perfect glass of bubbly. There were many things to love in the tale but I especially appreciated how the author handled the Inspirational portions of the story. The book includes a few details of several sordid little affairs and pains were taken to show how even the most ardent Christians must deal with the questions of temptation, forgiveness and the task of being moral without being judgmental. All of that was extremely well done. I also appreciated how the author showed passion between her two characters without having them cross any lines Inspirational readers would feel uncomfortable with. We stayed firmly in the kisses zone but let’s just say they were passionate kisses.
The title for this book is actually a play on the notes left at the crime scene. They cleverly combine information from Shakespeare’s plays with a shrewd knowledge of his characters to lead us to the villain. I don’t know my Shakespeare well enough to have solved the riddle but I enjoyed playing along and appreciated the explanation that came at the end of the tale. The mystery fit very well with the style of suspense this story is.
This fun, playful depiction of a bygone era definitely worked for this reader. If you are a fan of books like the Lord Peter Wimsey novels by Dorothy Sayers I think you will enjoy them as well.