The Smart Women – Ursula, her mother Pandora, her Aunt Charlotte and perennial hanger-on Bridget – are sitting in the viewing gallery at the Old Bailey. Penelope Lovell is on trial for the murder of her husband, the world-famous novelist Anthony Lovell, creator of lawyer-cum-sleuth Sheridan Le Foy. It was an open and shut case – at the launch of his new book on his private island, she took her husband a drink which was laced with deadly poison (from the discarded parts of a puffer-fish) which he drank. Everything was on camera – no one else approached Anthony. No one else could have poisoned him.
As Ursula thinks back to the events leading up to the murder – the Smart Women had wangled an invite to the event – she becomes more concerned that something had been missed. That she had seen something that was important. But nobody else could have possibly murdered Anthony – could they?
Ah, book four of one of my favourite mystery series, following The Smart Women’s Guide To Murder, Body On The Island and The Supper Club Murders. Victoria Dowd has found a way to balance character without sacrificing plot and the first three books to date have been excellent mysteries as well as gripping reads. So how about book four?
Part of me feels like prevaricating at this point, as I know Victoria reads the blog, so I feel I should draw out the agony. I’ve been waiting for a review copy – you know how it is, racing to the letterbox every time someone shoves a charity bag or electioneering leaflet into it, hoping it’s the long awaited treasure. Anyway, I decided to take matter into my own hands as publication day was approaching and went to NetGalley to find that I seem to be auto-approved for the publisher’s books. So rather than exercise the art of patience, all it took was a couple of clicks and off I went. OK, so I’ve made her wait long enough – let’s get to the reivew.
Let’s look at the annoying bits first… Well, annoying bit. Some classic sleuths get their names dropped here, but where was the reference to Anthony Bathurst? There’s a line comparing the fictional Le Foy as a rehash of Campion, Merrivale and Wimsey – surely old Anthony Lotherington Bathurst is a better comparison than Merrivale? But that would imply that Ursula had been able to find some Brian Flynn gold-dust, now of course much more readily available. You’re welcome, by the way…
Yeah, that’s the annoying bit – oh, and the weird bit at the start with the snakeskin. Everything else was rather wonderful to be honest. The pacing is punchier here than in the earlier books – they did take a little while to get going – but here, as it’s told in part-flashback, there’s more of a sense of hitting the ground running. Ursula keeps the narrative moving forwards while the cast is populated with nicely distinctive characters (without the need to resorting to eccentricities to distinguish them).
As for the mystery, it’s much more subtly clued than previous outing, and I was caught out completely by the identity of the murderer. Actually, that’s been the case with all of Victoria’s books – she has a real skill at misdirection. The impossible nature of the murder has a nice simple-but-you-miss-it solution as well. I thought I’d seen most impossible poisonings from Paul Doherty (which admittedly often revolve around what the victim might lick in the room) but this was cleverly done. The climax of the book is gripping stuff, and I look forward to where the Smart Women head next.
The Book Of Murder is out today from Joffe Books in paperback or for an absolute pittance on ebook – seriously, the bottle of Pepsi that I’m swigging on while I write this cost me more – so what are you waiting for?