The Smart Woman’s Guide To Murder (2020) by Victoria Dowd

A country house, long past its best, stands in the middle of nowhere. The five members of Pandora Smart’s book club have gathered for a weekend away, along with Pandora’s troubled daughter, Ursula, to discuss Gone Girl for the fourth time this year – they’re not the most committed book club when it comes to actually reading the book in question. Two servants are looking after them. And as a mysterious fortune teller arrives to see each guest one at a time, the snow begins to fall…

Soon, as some of the party try to escape the snowdrifts, a body is found in the grounds. More follow – it seems that the house has a killer under the roof. But as the number of inhabitants falls and there is no sign of anyone else in the building…

Yes, it’s another “For Fans Of Agatha Christie” review. You know the sort of thing, I get a book for a pittance off Amazon that is recommended as an acceptable substitute for the Queen of Crime, but more often it ends up as if the person recommended it hasn’t actually read any Agatha Christie. It’s like recommending Donald Trump “for fans of Barack Obama” – there’s a vague similarity in the sense that they’ve got the same basic setting, but it ends there.

I’m not entirely sure why I picked this one – I’d basically decided to discontinue the experiment, as it was beginning to feel like a kicking my local MP – fun, yes, deserved, yes, but was it really achieving anything in the long run? It was probably the title that caught my eye, which is odd, because the title is the weakest thing about the book. I can see the idea that a series of “The Smart Woman’s Guide To…” is easy promotion, and, obviously, it caught my eye, but it hasn’t really got an awful lot to do with the plot, apart from the intro lines to each chapter.

When I say that’s the weakest thing about the book, I should say instead that this is the only thing about the book that irked me – because the rest of it is fabulous.

This is exactly what it says on the tin – it is indeed for fans of Agatha Christie. It’s one of the best examples I’ve seen of bringing the classical whodunit into the modern era. There are clues abounding, plenty of red herrings, a clever solution (unless you’ve read far too many mysteries in your time, but even then, this is a variant on what I’ve seen before) and a plot that keeps moving forward. As you read the book, questions come to you which don’t seem to have answers that could satisfy you but they do. But this will also appeal to the modern reader.

The narrator, Ursula, is a potentially unreliable narrator, having been traumatised by the loss of her father, who, it’s fair to say, she was much closer to than her mother. There is enough backstory to invest the reader in her character and yet not so much that it becomes the main thrust of the narrative. At times it seems that Ursula is the only one of the guests who have their heads screwed on properly, but as the stress piles up, she finds coping with it harder and harder. But the mystery plot dominates and the reader should be warned – Ursula’s character development and background is not just window-dressing…

And I should say – there is one moment, towards the end as the truth begins to get revealed, where I mentally punched the air. I thought it was very clever and I did not see it coming at all. But I’ll say no more…

I worry a little for this book – I’m not exactly deaf to the crime fiction world, and I’ve seen little publicity for this book, just the random Amazon advert that caught my eye. In my opinion, it deserves a much wider readership – so please, give it a try. This, hands down, is the biggest surprise I’ve had with a mystery novel this year, it’s outstanding, exactly the sort of book this blog was started to try and find. So give it a go – and then tell your friends.

12 comments

  1. It’s free with Kindle unlimited here and even without that it’s incredibly cheap. Looking forward to reading it. Thanks for the review and introducing us to a new series.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Puzzle Doctor – thanks for the recommendation. So much of today’s so called crime fiction is full of gratuitous and unnecessary violence that I refuse to read any of it.

    I ordered a paper back copy today and look forward to trying a modern take of golden age fiction.

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  3. […] This was one of those wonderful moments that are so rare. It was a surprise review that I saw on Twitter and it’s on an amazing blog where fantastic murder mystery novels are reviewed. This guy really loves the genre and is incredibly knowledgeable about it. That’s why it meant so much – to come from a fellow fan of Golden Age Detection this was a truly heart stopping moment. The fact that someone such as this likes the book and gets what I was trying to do, is what it’s all about. Thank you. I can die happy.  If you’re a fan of classic murder mysteries, I heartily recommend this blog. It is fabulous! Here’s a link. I shall be visiting there often and not just to re-read the review of my book! https://classicmystery.blog/2020/07/24/the-smart-womans-guide-to-murder-2020-by-victoria-dowd/ […]

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  4. Thanks for the recommendation, and I’m definitely checking this out on my local Kindle store. I confess the title and the trend of such titles on your blog gave me some strong vibes as to how the review would proceed – and you certainly strung the reader along. And so it was a pleasant surprise to discover yet another book that conforms to the title and ethos of your blog.

    When I read the line, ‘a clever solution (unless you’ve read far too many mysteries in your time…’ – I wondered if you were referring primarily to yourself. And the rest of the sentence confirmed it.

    Thanks for the review!

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  5. When you say it is meant for Agatha Christie fans, perhaps you are referring to the plot. Because it simply can’t be the writing style!
    I have read 3 chapters and I am struggling to read the book because of the writing style. It is flowery, pretentious, verbose, exaggerated and convoluted completely unlike Agatha Christie who wrote so simply .yet so effectively.

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    • I think my review makes that clear when it talks about the narrator. A book written exactly in the style of Agatha Christie would not get published these days – modern readers on the whole are more demanding in the realms of character and investment. I believe that this book forms a perfect marriage between the two styles.

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  6. I’ve just gone past 30% on my Kindle, and yes, the narratorial voice at times leans towards the literary – but it seems to me to be consistent with the narrator who’s jibed by her mom to be ‘always reading’. It might not be to everyone’s taste, and I find the literary style peculiarly juxtaposed with the sarcasm – but I still enjoy these humorous touches.

    More importantly, the (first?) corpse has turned up, and I’m looking forward to discovering how the mystery unfolds! Thanks for the recommendation, Puzzle Doctor.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thanks for the recommendation. Great to see a young author ‘get’ Golden Age Detection tropes and put it into a thoroughly modern setting. The story really drives along, one of the quickest reads I’ve had for a while. I don’t think there were any plot ‘holes’ which is rare enough even in genuine GAD. My only quibble would be the rather overblown writing of Ursula’s feelings and descriptive passages contrasted with the wonderfully sharp and bitchy dialogue. I could have done with a map once or twice as well but, overall, great stuff!

    Liked by 1 person

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