David Stafford’s Skelton’s Guide to Domestic Poisons is what you get when you cross a Golden-Age mystery with P. G. Wodehouse, which would be high praise indeed if not for caveats.
Set in a 1929 England ignorant of the economic cataclysm to come, Stafford’s mystery centres on a loveable, of-working-class-stock barrister and his efforts to exonerate Mary Dutton, accused of poisoning her abusive husband; the novel’s blurb offers some further details:
Before propelled to front-page fame by winning the case of the century, Arthur Skelton was a fairly unremarkable barrister. Now, he is enjoying the attention that being dubbed a hero by the press brings – namely practising his distinguished pose and his autograph – much to the amusement of his wife.
But January 1929 brings another high-profile case. Mary Dutton is accused of murdering her husband, although there are few people who dispute her guilt. The case is considered unwinnable; however, despite the odds, Skelton agrees to defend her – a decision that has absolutely nothing to do with her resemblance to a beautiful Hollywood actress …
With an army of flappers set to cast their inaugural votes in the looming general election, both sides of the political divide are keen to secure their support by turning the case to their advantage and begin to lean on Skelton. Aided by his trusty clerk Edgar, Skelton faces mounting pressure to find the truth. But will that be enough to save a young woman’s life?
Stafford’s quasi-comic, quasi-tragic mystery may be divided into disparate parts: the marvelously comic characterization and dubious mystery. Continue reading
“If it had not rained on a certain May morning, Valancy Stirling’s whole life would have been different.”
Thus opens Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Blue Castle, a novel that should be as beloved to Montgomery readers as Anne of Green Gables. Its opening line encompasses what happens to a life at the crossroads of arbitrariness and opportunity, circumstance and freedom. Valancy is a 29-year-old mousy spinster, a Miss Bates without the supportive community or tolerant mother, living in her contemptuous family’s shadow and reminded daily she is her supercilious mother’s cross to bear. Valancy is simultaneously cowed, dismissed, pitied, and exploited. Continue reading
Miss Bates knew Deanna Raybourn in her incarnation as the creator of the Lady Julia Grey mystery series, one Miss Bates read and enjoyed. But mystery novels, in comparison to romance novels, always make Miss B. antsy. Truth be told, she was more fascinated by the Lady Julia/Nicholas Brisbane courtship and coupling than she ever was by the whodunits. She can’t ever recall the dominant mystery thread that is the core of any of the Lady Julia novels. What she does remember, with reader pleasure/pain, are the antagonistic, oblique attraction and temperaments of the leads, the curiosity to know more and more of their intimate encounters and emotional vulnerabilities. Raybourn is so so good at withholding from the reader. This attracted and repelled Miss Bates, had her anticipate and yet avoid the latest release. In her latest novel, City Of Jasmine, it appears that Raybourn loosened those maddening elements and allowed her hero and heroine to eke out a little more of themselves and their relationship to the reader. In this sense, and coupled with Raybourn’s lovely writing and the strong, amiable voice of her heroine-narrator, City Of Jasmine was a better, more satisfying read for Miss Bates. It was also a tighter narrative than the Julia Grey mysteries: it didn’t get as bogged down in details and developped mystery elements with greater and more engaging alacrity. She would venture to suggest that if you like your mysteries with their cross-hairs on the relationship rather than the body, you’re going to relish this latest from Raybourn. It captured Miss Bates … though she still experienced some frustration with it.