Body On The Island (2021) by Victoria Dowd

After a brief window of fame/infamy following their surviving the events of The Smart Woman’s Guide To Murder, the group now known, despite Pandora Smart’s best efforts as the Slaughterhouse Five find themselves heading to a remote Scottish island. Ursula Smart was determined to have a break for it all and decided that a weekend in the Outer Hebrides with a bit of mild foraging on a survivalist weekend would do them all good.

A storm strikes and they wash up on an uninhabited island, nine survivors (and a dog) with two drowned and one lost at sea. Lack of food and water is the primary concern for most, but Ursula, still struggling with her grief, is more concerned about what she saw before she passed out in the water – someone pushing a woman under the water to drown her. Ursula’s fears soon become realized as the survivors start to die – a murderer is in their midst and their work is far from over…

This is the second book in The Smart Woman’s Guide series. I was wary of the title of the first book, thinking it was a tad confusing to the general reading public, but absolutely loved it to bits, a modern book that embraced Golden Age plotting as well. It was one of my books of the year and ever since Victoria said she’d send me a copy of the next one, I’ve been camping out by the letterbox.

A few caveats – the title first. It was going to be The Smart Woman’s Guide To Survival, but apparently it was changed as keeping that theme going for a series would clearly be tricky. Murder, Survival, Accidents, Tracheotomies… yes, you’ll run out of decent titles pretty quickly. Unfortunately the replacement is so bland, and, more importantly, missing a “The”. So, yes, again I’ve a problem with the title. Also the first line of the blurb – unless Mr Bojingles is counted, there are only nine people on the island at the beginning…

On a more serious note, the first half of the book is a little slow to establish the situation – getting a book group of middle-aged plus ladies onto an abandoned Scottish island does take some doing, and rushing it would have been a mistake, but the plot took a little while to come into focus (i.e. for the group to be faced with a murder). Readers of the first one (which this necessarily all but spoils, be warned) will be fine as it gives more development to the group, in particular Ursula and Pandora, and will know what to expect from Victoria’s plotting, but if you are new to the series, then first of all go back and read the first one, and secondly, trust me, it’s more than worth the wait.

When the deaths start, it really looks as if the author has bitten off more than they can chew. With basically four suspects and five lead characters, options seem limited, but there are things you can do with that set-up which can still surprise. I am, dear reader, a cynical old so and so, who has read too many detective stories to count*, and yet I can still be caught out. And I was indeed caught out, yet again, by a damn clever idea.

This is another outstanding book in this short (so far) series, but clearly there are going to be more. An exceptionally strong lead character in Ursula, with good support from her mother (although maybe trim down the supporting cast next time as there are only so many ways to get a surprise out of a small group of suspects), a very clever and complete plot and some good surprises and an exciting ending. For only a second mystery novel, this is an excellent piece of work – it’s even got clues and genuine surprise ending. This is a near perfect marriage of classic mysteries and the modern thriller novel (and a good whiff of humour), it’s an absolutely outstanding book.

*no such thing really, in case you were worried

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