The Torso in the Town by Simon Brett

25th May 2021.

This is the third book in the Fethering mystery series, feature chalk and cheese neighbours Carole and Jude.

It starts with a dinner party at Pelling House, where Jude finds a mummified torso in the cellar. It isn’t long before Jude and Carole are returning to the small market town where it happened to investigate. Carole, however, is smarting from a breakup in a recent relationship, and isn’t as motivated as usual.

But it isn’t long before Jude’s befriending the locals, getting them invited to an important dinner party, and interviewing everyone with a connection to Pelling House over the years. As you would expect, there are plenty of characters in the town and even more suspects, once the body is identified.

Carole and Jude’s progress is a joy to behold as they get behind and under the façade of this sleepy town and its often pompous residents. I loved the author’s gentle mocking of middle class foibles, values and attitudes and the undercurrent of humour that keeps the story jogging along at a merry pace.

The descriptions and social commentary are a delight, the characters beautifully, an occasionally tragically, portrayed, and the investigation leads to an exciting climax, followed by an unexpected twist that adds to the reader’s pleasure.

If you enjoy a cosy mystery that’s original, sophisticated and fun, then this series is a treat and fast becoming one of my favourites.

Description

Grant and Kim Roxby had hoped that their first dinner party at Pelling House would make an impression with their new neighbours. And the next day it’s certainly the talk of the village in Fethering. For their guests – including the couple’s old friend Jude – had been enjoying a pleasant meal when they were rudely interrupted by a gruesome discovery. A human torso hidden in the cellar.

Carole and Jude turn amateur sleuths once again. They begin to question the locals, but they can’t help wondering why a town notoriously distrustful of outsiders is proving so terribly amenable to their enquiries . . .

The Torso in in the Town by Simon Brett

A hero for today

Have you ever read a book or watched a TV programme and wished you could write something as good?

Inspector MorseNeither had I until I saw the original Inspector Morse series. The superb characterisation, complex and intriguing plots, and the beautiful Oxford settings captivated me. About the same time, BBC 1 aired the Miss Marple series, adapted from Agatha Christie’s books.

Both programmes evoked the same emotion and desire to write a complex murder mystery.

At this point, I should tell you I was already a writer. Not a successful one, unless you include the national short story competition I won at the age of 12. That early enthusiasm and promise never quite materialised into something a publisher would want or take – until Morse and Marple got under my skin.

I sensed a brighter future. But first, I needed a hero for my murder mysteries – someone different, someone flawed but principled, charismatic and up to the job.

Police officer or private investigator?

While I’d worked with the police many times as an environmental health officer (EHO), I had no idea how they investigated murders. With DNA evidence making its mark, I thought I’d leave it those who understood such things.

Sue GraftonEqually, I had no idea how private investigators worked. Sue Grafton’s first novel, A is for Alibi, featuring PI Kinsey Millhone tempted me to create my own investigator. The character was feisty, sassy, funny and quite ruthless in completing any job she took. The books were a joy to read.

Could I create a male version of Kinsey?

It took some time for Kent Fisher to evolve. The name took almost as long to create, but that’s a subject for another day. He was tough, determined, single-minded, hopeless in love, and had a good stock of witty one-liners.

But was he flawed?

In his first outings, he was more like Rambo than Morse. That’ll teach me to make him a former paratrooper. He was married to an unsuitable woman. While it seemed like a good idea at the time for extra conflict, I couldn’t imagine him falling for such a woman. Net result – I failed to write with any conviction.

My attempts to make him a PI fared no better.

Thanks to my healthy appetite for Dick Francis, that left me with one option. Many of his heroes were ordinary people, drawn into adventures and investigations that often put them in grave danger.

Kent Fisher became an EHO

Kent Fisher and ColumboAn environmental health officer conjured up an image of a person in a suit, carrying a clipboard and talking like some dreary, faceless bureaucrat. That was how TV writers saw them at the time. It was hardly an image to inspire readers, was it?

So I gave Kent a past as a hunt saboteur and environmental protestor, who chained himself to trees and bulldozers to stop developers destroying the countryside he loved. This ensured he had as many enemies as he had supporters, offering plenty of storylines for the future.

Without thinking, I knew he would live in an animal sanctuary, confirming his dedication to the natural world.

While I doubt if he’s anyone’s idea of a detective, to me he’s a hero for today. He’s an ordinary person who solves the most complex and difficult murders I can dream up.

This posed another challenge – how would an EHO solve a murder? Let’s be honest, during my long career, no one has ever walked into the council offices and asked me to investigate a murder.

I’ll admit I’ve wanted to murder many awkward members of the public, councillors and restaurateurs and publicans over the years. Luckily, I can now do that in my novels.

Finally it came to me – disguise a murder as a fatal work accident. Kent Fisher goes in to investigate with the police. They pass the investigation to him and he uncovers a murder.

Simple.

But no one believes him, of course, so he has to solve it himself.

It led me to the highly original title of No Accident, which was traditionally published in June 2016.

A fresh approach to the traditional murder mystery

Thoroughly modern, with contemporary themes about protecting wildlife and the environment, Kent Fisher was like no other detective out there. Whether that’s a good or bad thing depends on how much you like the traumatised police inspectors with pen-pushing superiors that seem to dominate crime fiction these days.

What I hadn’t anticipated was the part the characters and backstory would play in the hearts and minds of readers. I simply set out to build a world around Kent and fill it with strong, engaging characters that would impact on his life and work.

HarveyAnd that’s before we get to the rescue dog he adopted. Named Columbo after Kent’s favourite TV detective, the West Highland white terrier would become a firm favourite with readers and reviewers.

With his personal life as complex as the murders Kent solved, the story drew in people who didn’t normally read crime. Readers cared about these people, about this world Kent lived in, as much as they enjoyed trying to solve the murders.

But that’s something for another post…


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At Bertram’s Hotel by Agatha Christie

9th May 2021.

In the eleventh outing for Miss Marple, she’s staying at Bertram’s Hotel, a place she once visited many, many years before. Priding itself on its traditional décor, service and values, the hotel seems too good to be true for the cynical Miss Marple.

There are train robberies, curious affairs of the heart and personal vendettas all mixed up in a complex investigation led by a Scotland Yard detective, nicknamed Father for his calm, but effective technique. Like Miss Marple, he misses nothing and soon seconds her to his investigation.

Not for the first time, Miss Marple isn’t at the heart of the story. This may be due to the scale of the crimes under investigation. That said, she contributes a good deal to the investigation and deduction. As always, the main characters are sharply observed, though the author’s customary social comments and humour are not as prevalent in this story.

It’s still a complex and baffling puzzle that takes some unravelling, but it’s a much grander affair than the usual local village murder Miss Marple normally solves. Perhaps this is why she is more of an assistant to the police than the main sleuth.

Description

An old-fashioned London Hotel is not quite as reputable as it makes out…

When Miss Marple comes up from the country for a holiday in London, she finds what she’s looking for at Bertram’s Hotel: traditional decor, impeccable service and an unmistakable atmosphere of danger behind the highly polished veneer.

Yet, not even Miss Marple can foresee the violent chain of events set in motion when an eccentric guest makes his way to the airport on the wrong day…

At Bertram's Hotel by Agatha Christie

A Caribbean Mystery by Agatha Christie

23rd April 2021.

In her tenth outing, Miss Marple finds herself on a Caribbean Island with little to do, thanks to her generous nephew, Raymond. She sits in the sun with her knitting, observing the other guests at the hotel and occasionally conversing with them.

Major Palgrave has plenty of stories to tell and has foisted himself on many of the guests before he treats Miss Marple to his tales. She half listens, nodding in all the right places as he talks about his time in Africa and Asia, finally settling on a tale of a murderer he once saw. He’s about to show her a photograph of this murder, when he spots some people over her shoulder and clams up.

When he’s found dead in his room the following day, a victim of high blood pressure, it looks like no more than old age and over indulgence. But Miss Marple senses there’s more to it and wishes she’d paid more attention to the story he told her.

From this innocuous beginning, the story develops into a classic whodunit, as Miss Marple digs around, uncovering all manner of motives and suspects as she talks to guests, the hoteliers and the local doctor, slowly piecing together the motive for the murder and its consequences.

As with the other Miss Marple books, the investigation is as complex as it is baffling until she makes sense of it all. The characters are sharply drawn and observed, the narrative laced with humour and social comment, and though the pace is gentle, the mystery and questions arising draw you in, refusing to let you go until the crime is solved.

In many ways, the books are more intriguing than the many TV dramas depicting Miss Marple. She’s not the fluffy, gossipy old lady you might imagine, as many a killer and detective would testify, but she’s a delight to follow when she’s on the trail.

Description

An exotic holiday for Miss Marple is ruined when a retired major is killed…

As Jane Marple sat basking in the Caribbean sunshine she felt mildly discontented with life. True, the warmth eased her rheumatism, but here in paradise nothing ever happened.

Eventually, her interest was aroused by an old soldier’s yarn about a strange coincidence. Infuriatingly, just as he was about to show her an astonishing photograph, the Major’s attention wandered. He never did finish the story…

A Caribbean Mystery by Agatha Christie

The Death on the Downs by Simon Brett

22nd April 2021.

Having enjoyed the first book in the Fethering village mysteries series, I was keen to see what neighbours Carole and Jude would get up to in this second outing. United by curiosity and sleuthing, this unlikely duo once again joins forces after Carole discovers a bag of human bones in a barn while sheltering from a storm.

Attention focuses on the nearby village of Weldisham, where the locals have plenty of secrets and animosities to hide. It doesn’t take long for both Jude and Carole to investigate different strands of the murder, arriving at the same conclusion in a deadly climax.

This is cosy mystery writing at its best. The characters are beautifully drawn and realised, each providing their own unique view of the world they inhabit. Though very different in nature, Carole and Jude work well together. The author never misses an opportunity to poke fun at the many conventions and traditions that go with village life and dictate behaviour. The dry, gentle humour pervades the whole story, helping to lighten the darker moments.

There’s no rush or car chases, none of the traumatised detectives who seem to populate most crime fiction these days, and no excessive violence or swearing. This is a gentle, funny and endearing murder mystery that’s as much about the characters and idiosyncrasies of village life as it is about solving a complex murder.

If you enjoy a cosy mystery, this is about as warm, entertaining and beautifully written as it gets.

Description

It wasn’t the rain that upset Fethering resident Carole Seddon during her walk on the Downs, or the dilapidated barn in which she was forced to seek shelter. No, what upset her was the human skeleton she discovered there, neatly packed into two blue fertiliser bags . . .

Amateur sleuths Carole and Jude go to the small hamlet of Weldisham where gossips quickly identify the corpse as Tamsin Lutteridge, a young woman who disappeared from the village months before. But why is Tamsin’s mother so certain that her daughter is still alive? As Jude sets out to discover what really happened to Tamsin, Carole digs deeper into Weldisham’s history and the bitter relationships simmering beneath the village’s gentle facade.

Death on the Downs by Simon Brett

The Country Inn Mystery by Faith Martin

30th December 2020.

I’m not a big fan of the traditional cosy mystery set in a small rural village, but the writing and character of Jenny Starling captured my imagination from the first page and took me along on an interesting and enjoyable ride.

Relief chef, Jenny, is working at the Spindlewood Inn in the village of Caulcott Deeping in the Cotswolds. The village is putting on a Regency extravaganza, which includes performances of a local historical event by the amateur dramatic society. And while they may be amateurs, the battle of egos is just as sharp.

The story ambles along with Jenny observing the varied characters who are there for the weekend. It soon becomes apparent that some of these people have other agendas, especially where the main actor, Rachel Norman, is concerned. It’s only a matter of time before she winds up dead, but how she was killed is a baffling mystery in the Agatha Christie tradition.

While the police try to piece it all together, Jenny’s observational skills and ability to connect the sometimes obscure clues ensures she solves the murder with skill and aplomb.

The author’s produced an entertaining and enjoyable read, filled with suspects, motives and red herrings and a liberal sprinkling of humour and wry observation, which lift it above the average cosy mystery.

Description

Jenny Starling is working at The Spindlewood Inn for the weekend. It’s hosting a Regency Extravaganza, involving historical costume, amateur dramatics and food.

Leading actress of the amateur dramatic society and reputed man-eater Rachel Norman portrays a doomed noblewoman. But when she turns up actually drowned in the pond, there’s suddenly a murder to investigate.

There’s been plenty of trouble at the idyllic country inn. The performers weren’t a happy troupe, and Jenny discovers a simmering romantic tension.

Who wanted Rachel dead and why? Jenny Starling is going to need all her wits to crack this complex case.

The Country Inn mystery by Faith Martin