Libby Sarjeant, a divorced older woman, has moved to the village of Steeple Martin, where she is directing a play in the village’s new theatre, written by her friend Peter and based on events related to his family during World War II. After a series of acts of sabotage involving the theatre and cast, the lead actress is found dead.
Can this murder be linked to events in the past that Peter’s family would rather keep secret?
Let’s get the good points out of the way first.
It’s not a bad read and the author appears to have researched the subject of hop pickers during the war fairly thoroughly.
So, what is wrong with this novel?
1. Characters. Cookman throws us straight into a bewildering array of characters, some of whom are difficult to distinguish from each other. I got about 17% in and had to return to the start to work out who Ben was and how he relates to the rest of the family.
There seems little attempt to give anyone a personality. We know that Peter and Harry are gay because they call everyone ‘Ducks’ or ‘Dear Heart’ and Harry wears pink shirts and runs a vegetarian restaurant called The Pink Geranium. I tend to see Cookman with a tickbox list of gay cliches pinned up on the wall next to her laptop. If this had been written twenty years ago I would have been only slightly less concerned. This is 1970s sitcom stereotyping of the laziest sort and honestly, it shouldn’t exist in the 21st Century.
If you’re going to include gay characters then I’d suggest you ask some gay people to have a read through and suggest any changes. Clearly this wasn’t done on this occasion.
A psychic is thrown into the mix halfway through. Apparently, in Middle England, builders and estate agents employ psychics to check out buildings for them. Who knew?
The police appear to be based in the 1950s and evidently have no idea of procedural issues.
Are there any memorable characters in this book? Just the one, in fact. It’s Libby’s cat, Sidney, who displays far more personality than any of the humans without having to say a single word and additionally has a pivotal role to play in the finale.
No one seems capable of having an ordinary conversation without it turning into an awkward argument or a misunderstanding. This happens all the time, but particularly with the psychic, Fran, who quite honestly has no real reason for being invited, either into the village or the novel.
3. Realistic stuff
Could an English village, in 2012, possibly support a successful theatre and a vegetarian restaurant? Most villages are having trouble hanging on to a Post Office and a local shop. The Pink Geranium always seems to have lots of bookings though. I find this quite unrealistic.
I’ve already mentioned the psychic. I’ve nothing against psychic investigators in novels. There’s a whole subgenre of supernatural detective stories. The problem lies in bringing in a psychic in an otherwise ‘rational world’ novel, whose powers appear to be real. It’s a fact which seems to phase no one. Had she had some role to play within the novel it might go some way to explaining her presence, but she doesn’t. She just keeps turning up and apologising for knowing things she shouldn’t because of her X-Men powers.
4. The Plot
I am reminded of the marvellous Margaret Rutherford film ‘Murder Most Foul’ which, strangely enough, features a murder related to a theatre company. Ron Moody – perfectly cast as the irascible director is found in one scene frantically riffling through the pages of the play Margaret Rutherford has submitted.
‘What are you looking for?’ asks Margaret Rutherford.
‘The plot, Madam. The plot!!’ He replies (or words to that effect), frantically riffling on. I felt a little like this during the course of the novel.
None of it makes a great deal of sense when it’s all finally explained. One tends to feel that the author herself wasn’t sure of the identity of the murderer until quite late in the day and found a way of squeezing in an explanation.
The denouement is very rushed, particularly disappointing and defies logic, although I can’t go into any detail without some major spoilers.
I don’t think I’ll be reading any more of these.