Elly Griffiths’s second Harbinder Kaur mystery tells us more about her love of Golden Age mystery writers, Murder She Wrote, and Georgette Heyer than it stands as exemplary crime fiction. I did not give an owl’s hoot about this, but to the tightly-plotted-is-best mystery reader, Postscript Murders is a sprawling mess, an octopus of great characters going nowhere in a plot meandering towards the improbable. Still, I liked it. I’m a fan of character-driven mystery, especially when the characters, amateur and professional, work together to solve the crime.
The blurb will lead us by setting things up:
The death of a ninety-year-old woman with a heart condition should not be suspicious. Detective Sergeant Harbinder Kaur certainly sees nothing out of the ordinary when Peggy’s caretaker, Natalka, begins to recount Peggy Smith’s passing. But Natalka had a reason to be at the police station: while clearing out Peggy’s flat, she noticed an unusual number of crime novels, all dedicated to Peggy. And each psychological thriller included a mysterious postscript: PS: for PS. When a gunman breaks into the flat to steal a book and its author is found dead shortly thereafter—Detective Kaur begins to think that perhaps there is no such thing as an unsuspicious death after all. And then things escalate: from an Aberdeen literary festival to the streets of Edinburgh, writers are being targeted. DS Kaur embarks on a road trip across Europe and reckons with how exactly authors can think up such realistic crimes . . .
Um, there’s actually no road trip “across Europe”, unless you count the characters’ miles-long foray from Shoreham-by-Sea to Aberdeen? Truth be told, Griffiths’s plethora of characters, plenty of them “found dead” like Peggy Smith, and convoluted plotting left me confused and indifferent to the goings-on. What did I enjoy? Her detecting crew, made up of adorable eccentrics.
My favourite was Benedict Cole, 32-year-old former priest, former monk turned one-man-operated barista-café-proprietor. He’s smart, methodical, loves to read classic mysteries, ganglingly handsome, and a virgin. As we learn, he hasn’t lost his faith. He left the monastery because he yearned to love and be loved, marry and have a family. Enter Natalka, Peggy Smith’s carer, originally from Ukraine, possessor of a bizarre cache of bitcoin (a plot thread left dangling, btw), model-beautiful, wild, eccentric, and determined to find Peggy’s killer. Enter Peggy’s neighbour and friend at Seaview Court, Edwin Fitzgerald, geriatric dandy, former BBC 4 announcer, and as determined as Benedict and Natalka to find Peggy’s killer, brought together by sharing a picnic table and Benedict’s lattes. While the blurb, and possibly what Griffiths originally envisioned, suggests this is Harbinder’s crime to solve and story to tell, her on-page time is equal to the amateur merry band. Benedict, Natalka, and Edwin are so vibrantly alive as characters, they jump off the page and into your heart. As does Harbinder, with her Panda Pop addiction and wonderful Indian family. Therein lies Postscript‘s strength: wonderful characters and a love for, and homage to, classic mysteries.
Where it comes apart is in a mystery that runs away from Griffiths. Writer-characters die right, left, and centre: Natalka, Edwin, and Benedict take one lead and harry off, only to be faced with another red herring, another bizarro death. When Harbinder joins the sleuthing, she takes centre stage, then disappears. We leave Shoreham and lose ourselves in Griffiths’s obvious love for Aberdeen. (Understandable. Who wouldn’t love Aberdeen? I’m one Google search away from booking tickets, if not for this pesky pandemic.)
How can one not love diffident Benedict to Natalka’s glamour? Benedict is smitten and plays Watson to her Sherlock: ” ‘Now it’s happening,’ she says to Benedict. ‘We have to act before he kills again.’ ‘How do we do that?’ says Benedict, making Natalka her regular cappuccino with an extra shot. He notes that Natalka has somehow hypnotised him into thinking they’re a crime-fighting unit. He draws a careful heart on the foam.” How adorable is Benedict’s endearing knowledge of the mystery genre, as Griffiths’s references and allusions delight the armchair-sleuth reader? ” ‘We need to think who would benefit from Dex’s death,’ says Benedict. ‘And Peggy’s too, for that matter. Motive and means.’ Natalka and Edwin look gratifyingly impressed. Benedict doesn’t tell them that this methodology comes straight from Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote.” Irresistible characters and Griffiths, I think, fell in love with them. They take centre stage and declare it at the novel’s conclusion: ” ‘I suppose we’re the loose ends in this story, ‘ says Edwin. ‘No,” says Natalka. “We’re the main characters.’ ” If you’re not a stickler for narrative cohesion, you’ll enjoy The Postscript Murders. To boot, given Griffiths has a character suggest that Miss Austen’s Emma is a “damn good mystery” with “lots of clues in Miss Bates’ monologues” (hiphiphurrah for MissB!), how could Miss Austen and I not deem The Postscript Murders “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma?
Elly Griffiths’s The Postscript Murders is published by Mariner Books. It was released on March 2nd and may be found at your preferred vendors. I received an e-galley from Mariner Books, via Netgalley, for the purpose of writing this review.