“It’s back to school for this new super sleuth!”
- Book: The Murder Mystery
- Location: Dulwich
- Author: Alice Castle
New to me author, Alice Castle, introduces a brand-new style of amateur sleuth, that of the younger middle-aged, single parent, living in smart Dulwich Village, in the London Borough of Southwark. The Murder Mystery is book #1 in the Beth Haldane series, which was originally published in 2017, with the title Death in Dulwich. The entire series of seven (soon to be eight books) have since received new titles and been newly presented to the reading audience in 2022, by publisher Bookouture.
So, let’s say Hi! to Beth and find out what makes her tick…
For Beth, moving back to Dulwich was coming home to her roots, although as a widow of some seven years, she finds herself unable to compete with, or relate to, the new brand of ‘yummy mummy’, up and coming population, with their 4×4 SUV’s, live in au pairs, and as many extra-curricular activities as their upwardly aspiring children can cram into their free time. She is aware that hers may well be worst house on the best street, but she does the best she can to provide a safe and loving environment for her young son Jake. Her mother Wendy lives nearby but upsetting her very organised and highly scheduled routine is not something Beth really wants to do, as she knows from bitter experience that it becomes far too stressful for all concerned and she doesn’t want to cause Wendy any unnecessary distress. She loves her brother Josh dearly; however, he is a rather unreliable Peter Pan type character, who has never really grown up and tends to turn up randomly when he thinks about it and usually with his latest girlfriend in tow – not exactly the role model Beth has in mind for Jake, but nonetheless an occasional welcome distraction and male company for him.
Competition to earn a place at Wyatt’s School for Boys, is fierce and Beth is all too aware that nine-year-old Jake is probably going to struggle to make the grade, when his time comes to leave the local primary school. She is therefore pleasantly surprised when she manages to bag the position of Archivist’s Assistant within Wyatt’s hallowed walls, hoping that she may have a little leverage when places for the new academic year are allocated. However, right from her very first morning it becomes apparent that archives really don’t seem to figure too heavily on the agendas of the headmaster and his senior team, being located as they are in nothing more than a rather glorified shed, sharing space with various items of games kit, separate from the main school buildings and almost next to the rubbish bin area. Beth’s new immediate boss, archivist Alan Jenkins, isn’t very ‘user friendly’ either, as he has that uncomfortable way of undressing you with his eyes, even on your first day in the job, although finding him stabbed to death by lunch time, with his face covered, wasn’t Beth’s preferred way of dealing with the situation.
When what has now become her archive room at Wyatt’s is turned upside down, Beth, assuming that the two crimes are connected, sets about trying to work out what could possibly be of such interest to a murderer turned burglar. When she thinks she might have found evidence which doesn’t paint Alan Jenkins in too good a light, she foolishly removes it from the premises and takes it home to check it out more thoroughly, without telling the police which is very much frowned on, and which potentially places both her own and Jake’s lives in danger. When her home is trashed with even more venom than the first assault on school property, Beth realises that not only has she stupidly put her own life in danger, but Jake’s too, which is totally unacceptable to her. DI Harry York, who is the senior officer on the case, cautions Beth not to interfere in the police investigation, although deep down he also has a grudging respect for the feisty mum and is quite happy to listen to her thoughts about why Alan might have met his maker so suddenly and who might have helped him on his way.
It turns out that there are more lies, secret assignations and twists in the lives of the many members of Wyatt’s staff and their families, than Beth ever thought possible and if some of the pushier mothers knew half the truth, they may not be fighting so hard and furiously to attain places for their offspring within its revered corridors. However, gambling, corruption, illicit affairs and yes, even murder, pale into insignificance when the true depth of Alan’s debauchery is revealed. And just to add to headmaster Dr Grove’s woes, the reputation of the establishment itself is called into question when the ‘slavery’ word is mentioned, although that rather flamboyant gentleman isn’t going to miss a trick and knows just how to turn the situation to his advantage.
The physical footprint of the story is confined to a single, quite niche location, so for anyone looking for travel to far flung places, there may be slight disappointment. However, some evocative and observational narrative and dialogue, genuinely offers a great sense and feeling of sights and sounds, time and place. So, if a short sojourn to Dulwich Village in 2017 floats your boat, you definitely won’t feel cheated by this book.
Whilst the chapters are slightly longer than I have become used to in many of my recent cozy mystery series reads, there are plenty of breakout points which kept this multi-layered and highly textured storyline, well-structured and signposted, fluently written, evenly paced and seamlessly evolving, with literally never a dull moment.
I had my own suspicions about the identity of the perpetrator quite early on, however, being new to the detective game, Beth’s modus operandi is still in its early-stage development, so it was good to see how she handled the investigation and to follow her train of thought. She has a list of relevant suspects and to give her her due, she does manage to ‘out’ the guilty party from some very tenuous DNA evidence. However, despite her journalistic background, she isn’t the most methodical of individuals given the head space she is in right now, so hopefully with her new job promotion requiring a tidy frame of mind to come as second nature, that organisation might well spill over into any new cases she may embark on. And of course, as with any good amateur sleuth, Beth also needs to try and avoid getting herself injured or killed, and a couple of close shaves in her very first case, should be focussing her mind and making her much more alert to potential danger.
A large, sprawling cast of guest characters occupied this storyline, none of which, with the exception of Beth’s best and true friend Katie Wood, are particularly likeable. Selfish, demanding, manipulative and duplicitous, are all words which come readily to mind, to describe this eclectic mix of the upper classes, who all seem to be jostling for some unspoken recognition or position, regardless of whose shoulders they need to stand to attain the heady heights they want to achieve for themselves, their families and their offspring.
There also may be a more personal and potentially romantic liaison developing between Beth and DI Harry York, although we have so far learned nothing about his private life, so right now that is pure speculation and supposition, and might be a strand of the storyline which is never going to lead anywhere. However, after being loyal to James’s memory for so long, Beth is coming around to the idea that a little adult happiness in her life and a male role model for Jake to look up to, may not be such a bad idea and there are certainly discernible sparks of mutual respect and attraction simmering away beneath the surface.
And of course, no self-respecting amateur sleuth who ever featured in a cozy mystery, did so without having the extra support of a four-legged confidante by their side. Beth is no exception to this rule, although the usual assortment of canine companions has been traded in by her for Magpie, a rather supercilious feline who shuns human company whenever possible but is nonetheless loved by her owner and displays a grudging respect in return, but only when required to and generally only if there is food involved!
A good solid start to a promising new series and it will be interesting to see just how Alice develops Beth’s character in the coming episodes. Books #2-7 are heading for my ‘wish list’ right now.