A DEATH IN THE PARISH by Richard Coles (Weidenfeld & Nicolson; 432 pages; ₹799)
Canon Daniel Clement is back—this time on the trail of a vicious killer. In this second book of the series, the gentle Rector of Champton St Mary, a rural East Midlands parish, has to contend with a co-Vicar, Chris Biddle, a ‘hell and brimstone’ variety for whom it is either belief or eternal damnation, and nothing in-between. Not for Biddle is Clement’s easy live-and-let-live philosophy. Our Canon is not someone in whom the fear of the devil comes readily, his temperament being one of gentle scepticism. The gentle humour that made the first book so endearing is brought out in their interactions. For instance, while Chris’ diary is full of meetings and what nots, Clement has to hide the bare pages of his diary, a trifle shamefaced. Chris and his deacon wife have rebellious children: twins who are semi-Goths (and we are told helpfully that they are like the cub-scouts to the scout) and his teenaged son, Josh, is in a music band. When Josh is found murdered in an abandoned airfield with his throat cut and the body laid out in a ritualistic manner, Canon Clement finds himself in the midst of another murder investigation with his new friend, Detective Sergeant Neil Vanloo. While he sifts through the motives, the everyday matters of his flock press for his attention. A predatory couple who weasels their way into the good graces of ailing widows, has now latched on to one of his flock. His quirky mother is being secretive, and then there is the matter of racism. His patron asks him to prepare the ground for the entry of a half-Native American daughter-in-law into the ancient De Floures lineage. There are uncomfortably amusing passages as Daniel’s insular mother tries to make conversation and puts her foot in: “Do you gather your people? … Around the campfire?” “No, in the dining room,” the fiancée replies.
The strong sense of place (a quiet parish in middle-England) and time (the late 1980s) is evoked through the descriptions of Harvest festivals: mall supper, Oak apple day and the churching of women. And Clement’s sexual orientation that makes him an outsider in a very fundamental way is addressed subtly when he buys a gift for his friend. A special friend, the record shop boy asks, and Clement is silent (speaks volumes, though).
This is a Cosy that handles difficult themes of racism, elder-care, and ecclesiastical conflicts with a light touch, though sometimes the delivery and humour doesn’t land quite as intended. Though Clement’s dry humour is appealing, the baroque digressions into high church musings are longwinded, and come at the expense of the investigation. One hopes the next one will focus more on the murder mystery elements. There is, however, a seamless interweaving of everyday conflicts, quirky characters and a puzzling mystery. Definitely worth reading for its lovely mix of dry humour, nostalgia and an appealing protagonist.
THE DEVIL’S FLUTE MURDERS by Seishi Yokomizo (Pushkin Vertigo; 352 pages; ₹399)
Yokomizo’s fictional detective, the scruffy Kosuke Kindaichi is back to investigate a series of chilling murders in the strange and feuding family of a troubled composer, Viscount Tsubaki whose most famous work chills the marrow of all who hear it. Set in the turmoil of post-war Tokyo inside the grand Tsubaki mansion, this is another great translation of an atmospheric mystery from the Golden Age Japanese author. The viscount’s daughter hires Kindaichi, the Japanese Sherlock Holmes, to investigate her father’s death. It is a strange family: a beautiful wife, her loutish brother and his family (a long-suffering wife and a quiet son), her Machiavellian uncle and his young mistress, an orphaned son of an old friend of the viscount’s, and an old family retainer (a nurse-maid). But when the family gathers for a divination on the patriarch’s demise, more gruesome murders occur. His investigation uncovers secrets pertaining to a dying aristocracy and decaying morals. The puzzle involves sifting through a difficult set of family relationships, uncovering a diabolical secret, all complicated by the Viscount’s resemblance to a serial killer.
Yokomizo is a master at establishing an eerie atmosphere, and by linking the murders to a serial killer, ratchets up the tension and deepens the mystery. The pace proceeds at a rapid clip and the detective investigates in a manner that offers us the clues in a pleasing and intelligible manner. Yokomizo adopts Agatha Christie’s characterisation techniques such evoking the peculiarities of how a character sees the world, and then takes our expectations and upends them. Like in his other books (The Inugami Curse and Honjin Murders) the setting is a moody character with lyrical descriptions—“veil of sideways rain,” “storm shaking the windows”. The convoluted soap opera of a solution—which veteran crime fiction readers will probably solve before the detective— doesn’t detract from the mystery’s charm.
THE MIDDLE TEMPLE MURDER by JS Fletcher (Hachette Yellowback; 288 pages; ₹399)
When young sub-editor Frank Spargo, after putting the London edition of The Watchman ‘to bed’, leaves office and is cutting through the Middle Temple, one of the Inns of Court, he stumbles on the body of an elderly man bludgeoned to death. The man has no identification but in his pocket is an address of a young and up-coming barrister, Breton. Scenting a scoop, Spargo allies with a Scotland Yard Detective Rathbury and Breton to solve the case. Hard work, luck and a sharp brain combine to help Spargo sift through the suspects who include a parliamentarian with a mysterious past, elderly philatelists and a dysfunctional family who harbour a secret that someone will kill for. Spargo, a go-getting journalist, is a likeable character who spawned many imitators bringing its author, Joseph Smith Fletcher, the sobriquet of Dean of Mystery Writers. Fletcher, an English journalist and author, wrote more than 230 books on a variety of subjects, and The Middle Temple Murder is an early example of an investigative journalist as a sleuth. President Woodrow Wilson praised it, and it seems that enabled Fletcher to win public acclaim and a publishing deal in the US. The book has aged well and it is an absorbing read, not only for its historical value but also for the neat manner in which the mystery is constructed. Spargo follows the clues down a logical path, and Fletcher’s skill as an author ensures a surprising and satisfactory denouement.
THE LAUNCH PARTY by Lauren Forry (Zaffre; 400 pages; ₹499)
Ten lucky people have won a place to be at the launch party of the first hotel on the moon. A motley group which includes a police detective, a doctor, a young academic, a Japanese billionaire, a Turkish architect, a young black criminology student, a journalist, a German divorce lawyer, a reality television star and his super-fan. But all of them won’t return alive. They arrive at Hotel Artemis only to find the hotel staff have disappeared, presumably returned on the ship that brought them in. They are alone on the moon, and then the murders begin. It has shades of Agatha Christie’s And Then There were None, but at twice the length and fewer surprises, the pace becomes harder to sustain. Those who dislike science fiction but love crime fiction, don’t worry. The moon setting is a plot device. We get brief notes on the moon’s horizon, seeing the earth—“an illuminated blue globe, a beacon of light in the utter blackness of space”—and an orchestral version of ‘Fly Me to the Moon’ playing in the background. The rest of the setting is inside the hotel—a floor made of see-through glass-like material, a staircase made from grey marble to mimic the moon’s surface, and so on. The authorial choice of telling the story from several viewpoints works well, and keeps everyone under suspicion. Nobody is ruled out, not even the detective.
In Christie’s book, what links all the characters is their murders. But in Forry’s book, the backstories don’t have the same heft, making the tension flag at points. But one did want to read on especially when the murders began piling up and a Christie-like ending could not be ruled out. Readers will turn the pages to find out if any of them will make it back alive.