Whitstable, Kent, and it’s Christmas time! But it’s not all tinsel and good cheer, as someone has been sending poisoned pen Christmas cards to some of the people in the town. Pearl Nolan, restauranteur and private detective, is reluctant to take on a case until Christmas is over, figuring that the cards can wait – they’re fairly vague messages, nothing that anyone would kill over. And if you believe that, then you haven’t read many mysteries, have you?
At the church fundraiser, Pearl sees an opportunity for a reunion with DCI Mike MacGuire, but before things can progress in the desired direction, Diana Marshall, a local accountant collapses. It seems that someone has substituted a substantial portion of her gin with antifreeze with fatal results. Pearl feels bound to investigate – with the reluctant assistance of MacGuire – but it seems that the killer hasn’t finished just yet…
OK, this is slightly complicated. Pay attention. This is the second book of the Whitstable Pearl trilogy of mysteries, out in paperback on Thursday. I’ve not read the first one yet, but have read the third, May Day Mystery, which was sent to me as part of the blog tour for it – but that review won’t be posted until 14th April, along with an interview with the author, Julie Wassmer. So I’m basically reading this series in reverse order, as this one was sent to me after I’d read the third one. I’ve not got my hands on a copy of the first one, but will I break my “no buying books” rule for the first time this year for it?
Probably not, but only because it’s my birthday soon, so I’ve put it on my Amazon Wish List instead – if the Birthday Fairy doesn’t bring it, then I’ll think again.
So this is the second chef-detective that I’ve come across recently – anyone who’s a regular reader of the blog knows that I won’t miss an opportunity to bang on about the wonderful Chef Maurice books – but there are differences here. Notably, Pearl and her compatriots are written as real people, rather than the comic characters in J A Lang’s work, but there are similarities as well – the homage to Dame Agatha is here in all its glory, with proper clues and everything.
The notion of poisoned pen Christmas cards is a clever one, not something I’ve seen before and there’s a clever idea behind them, hidden (almost) in plain sight, and, crucially, even if you spot it, it won’t necessarily complete the picture and unmask the murderer for you. But the plot makes sense, there’s a nice array of suspects and some juicy red herrings. There’s some little puzzles to solve along the way, such as the reason for the first victim’s odd behaviour, some of which are revealed early to help the armchair sleuth – although mostly to help them look in the wrong direction.
Pearl and her compatriots are a charming crowd, although you will find yourself wanting to bash her and MacGuire’s heads together – they’re more of a why-don’t-they-get-on-with-it than a will-they-won’t-they couple. The observant reader will note something that gives a hint to the fate of one particular character if they’ve read the third book, but it’s not a major spoiler that should force you to read the series in order.
When I was asked to review book three, Julie was described as writing “in the style of M C Beaton” – well, long-term readers know my thoughts in that direction. But I agreed anyway and I’m glad I did. Because this is a more complex tale than anything I’ve read from that author. It’s much more in the style of Dame Agatha – not quite the same quality, but what is? – but it’s a pretty good attempt. An entertaining read that kept me guessing (and, most importantly, guessing wrong). Highly Recommended.