Friday, November 12, 2010

Book Review: Death and the Joyful Woman

Ellis Peters
Awards: Edgar
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –

This is yet another well-put-together British mystery.

It starts with the violent murder of a businessman hated by many people for a variety of reasons. Someone is arrested for the crime but the detectives (and the reader) are convinced the accused person is innocent. The book follows the entire business of investigating the crime and finding the true killer.

There are negatives to this book, indeed, but they are outweighed by the positives.

The Positives

The two sleuths are likeable – both the official professional (the police detective, George Felse) and the unofficial amateur (George’s inquisitive teenage son Dominic).

The story is very well constructed. Peters does a nice job of ramping up the tension toward the end so that the climactic scene really is very exciting.

Peters exhibits hardly any of that annoying habit some mystery writers have where they too obviously keep things from the reader that would let the reader put together the clues themselves. Or the habit of trying to string the reader along and make the book more suspenseful by hinting clumsily at what the reader has already figured out, to the point where the reader wants to scream, "I know it was the butler already!" In this book, as you figure things out, the story is right there with you, acknowledging what you've figured out and then taking you to the next step.

There are some great quirky phrases in this book. I don’t know whether they’re more a result of Peters’ creativity, nationality, or era but they’re excellent:
"A sprat to catch a mackerel was fair enough"

"he was laughing like a drain"

"speak of the devil and his bat wings rustle behind you"

"working as packer and porter and general dog's body at Malden's"

"I never said anything to the fellows, naturally, but it leaked in around dawn, with the milk"
The Negatives

Some of the non-detective characters are ridiculous.

Particularly Kitty, a young woman with a complex relationship to the murdered man. Kitty is beautiful, innocent, and dippy. She does a lot of gasping and looking astonished and pleading with her big violet eyes. Naturally, guys feel rewarded just helping her out. She is like many young females in 1950s-1960s novels who are supposedly wild and rebellious, but never actually so rebellious as to be socially unacceptable.

Also, the police detective's wife, Bunty. She is completely understanding and helps her husband talk things out when he needs to even though he has a major crush on Kitty and she knows it.

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