Ursula Smart and her mother, Pandora, have received an invite to a supper club in Greystone Castle, overlooking Dartmoor, by an old acquaintance. And wherever Ursula and Pandora go, so does Aunt Charlotte and perpetual hangers-on Mirabelle and Bridget. As soon as they arrive, though, it becomes clear that this isn’t a happy occasion. The host and hostess are at each others’ throats (at least when the host is sober enough). To make matters worse, the supper club is a tour of the local village, with a course at every house. And of course the village is a bubbling cauldron of resentments and passions – and it’s raining.
After the final course, the Smart Women find themselves abandoned and locked out of the castle. The portcullis has come down on either side of the gatehouse – and in the middle of the floor lies a dead body, impossibly (sort of) locked in with a cannonball lying next to the fatal wound it has made in the victim’s head. As the body count begins to rise, it seems that the Smart Women are once again the kiss of death on any gathering they get invited too…
This is the third book in the Smart Women series, after The Smart Woman’s Guide To Murder and Body On The Island, a series that blends well the modern style of thriller (a slightly unreliable narrator for example) with the classic whodunit plots of the Golden Age of crime fiction. This one has even got a locked room mystery in it… sort of.
I’ve already been asked twice by people as to whether the locked room is a “proper” locked room. So many books are billed as impossible crimes these days while being nothing of the sort, but this is a proper attempt at a locked room. Two portcullises, a cannonball-inflicted headwound, and the ball too big to pass through the bars of the gates. The reason I refer to it as an attempt is that I was never convinced by the rationale of the gatehouse being locked – the gate is operated by a remote control and the control is missing – but I should assure readers that “victim had his head smashed in by person who had nicked the control a few days earlier” is not the solution. In fact, the solution is fairly clued, well-hidden and not one that I’ve seen before, although I do have a niggle with whether it would actually work. Although that’s probably a good thing, we don’t want to give castle owners ideas… and, to be honest, if you start picking at “would it work” in the best locked room mysteries, the same “it wouldn’t really work” problems always arise… Oh, and it’s worth pointing out, there is a reason for it, which is a pleasant surprise after some other reads recently.
The mystery, as ever with these books, is a clever one, with a logic behind it that makes a perverse sense. There are a couple of points – one pretty major – where I was wondering why on earth something would have happened, almost writing it off as a lapse on the author’s part – sorry, Victoria – only for it to become clear that there was a sensible reason for it. The denouement is a very satisfying reveal.
The characters… well, I’ve going to have to add a mildly negative comment here. I really like the core relationship between Ursula and Pandora, a tension-filled relationship that still has a deep love hidden at the core. Aunt Charlotte, however, seems to have the job of saying annoying one-liners or just generally thoughtless comments, and I did wish that it had been her who ended up… ah, I’ll say no more about that. Similarly, the constant “appearances” of Ursula’s father’s ghost didn’t really work for me, especially what the “ghost” does during the summing-up – it detracted from Ursula’s deductions rather than enhancing them. And, while I’m being honest, it took too long for the corpse to show up for my liking. As the tour goes from house to house, we have to visit every house before we get to the body, but maybe they could have jogged there rather than meandered?
As for the suspects, some of them are very enticing, but – and this is always a problem with first person narration – some of the characters who we only meet a couple of times and briefly at that come across as ciphers, mainly because the narrator never gets to know them.
All in all, though, I enjoyed this book a lot. I’d really like to see the central cast pared back for future outings to just Ursula and Pandora (and not too much ghost either), but when a writer clearly embraces the classic mystery plotting as well as this, I know I’m going to enjoy it regardless.