“Meet Flora Steele – bookshop owner, bicycle-rider, daydreamer and amateur detective!”

  • Book: Murder On The Pier (Flora Steele #2)
  • Location: Sussex
  • Author: Merryn Allingham

Review Author: [email protected]



Whilst the technical definition of ‘Golden Age’ detective fiction, is predominantly recognised as the decades of the 1920s and 1930s, the scope of the genre can apparently also be extended to other periods and I personally think that “The Flora Steele Mysteries” whilst set in the mid 1950s, qualify for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that the village setting, with its fairly predictable mix of local characters and tradespeople, are very reminiscent of the format for the “Miss Marple” series, by best selling author Agatha Christie, despite the fact that our sleuthing duo of Jack and Flora, are considerably younger in years than the estimable Miss Marple.

The combination of bookshop owner Flora and crime writer Jack, sounds like an amateur detective partnership made in heaven, although at first glance they may not be an obvious fit, as Jack is as taciturn and considered in his approach to their unofficial investigations, as Flora is impulsive and garrulous, which often puts them somewhat at odds with each other. Having only recently solved the case of The Bookshop Murder though, it would appear that Jack and Flora are gradually coming to an understanding in their relationship which places them more on an even footing, although I suspect that Jack will always be worried about letting Flora out of his sight for too long when a new case is there to be worked, as her impetuous nature rather courts trouble and danger, which has a nasty habit of placing them both in life threatening peril, as Flora is prone to acting first and considering the consequences later.

Jack has an unofficial understanding with local police detective Alan Ridley, who is open to casting a professional eye over the more technical details behind the plots of Jack’s books, to ensure their authenticity and accuracy. However, this does nothing to endear Alan to Flora, as she considers him far too quick to try and close a case down with probable cause and with the minimum amount of inconvenience; rather than assuage any nagging suspicions of foul play, by digging around for actual cause and suspects. Somewhat reluctantly, Jack has to agree that Ridley may not always take the most thorough route to solving a crime, although he will always try to keep the officer appraised of any developments and impending sticky situations, so that he and his team can be on hand if Jack and Flora get out of their depth, as so often happens.

The couple has also come to rely more and more on the astute observation and forthright manner of Jack’s young protegee, twelve-year-old, Charlie Teague. Charlie more than has his wits about him when it comes to being in the right place at the right time to earn himself a few pennies and whilst he may be a little rough around the edges, he is big-hearted, honest and keen to please. Jack and Flora, to their utmost chagrin, have rather silenced Charlie on more than one occasion during the course of this investigation though, as his young mind, sharp as it is, is subjected to the sight of a dead body floating in the sea and a personal near death experience involving a sabotaged boat and a large expanse of fast-flowing water, when he is unable to swim. A bit of TLC and a good plateful of food, usually revives Charlie in an instant, however the couple are more than aware that his mother should be able to rely on them to take more care of her young son, when he is in their charge.

Whilst not strictly a crime of passion, this case has a complicated mix of emotions and motives and a rather large and sprawling list of suspects, which Flora and Jack are not particularly organised about eliminating and really don’t begin to narrow down too much until the very last minute, and then only when they are confronted by the real perpetrator, who wasn’t even on their list, but I have to say was on my own, although maybe not right up there at the top. To elaborate any further really would be to disclose ‘spoilers’ and give the game away, for any armchair detectives out there, so you really do need to follow in Jack and Flora’s footsteps and see where the journey leads you, or perhaps you too, will be one step ahead and egging them on towards the finish line. The only clue I’m willing to share – ‘Is blood really thicker than water?’

Murder On The Pier is my idea of a textbook story format. It has a beginning which hits the ground running and after just a few pages I knew that something bad was going to happen pretty soon. The storyline is well paced with the action almost non-stop and plenty of cleverly added twists and turns to keep me on my toes and guessing. The ending is pretty neatly tied up with no nasty loose ends left hanging, although there is a rumour that the action might be moving location in the coming episodes, unless that’s just another red herring. I also don’t like my protagonists to end up dead and thankfully Jack and Flora manage this final challenge, but only by the very skin of their teeth and after several soakings, much bruising and the physical drawing of blood. How much longer can their luck hold out before there is some serious damage done and one of them is badly, perhaps fatally hurt!

Whilst this traditional murder mystery series is fast becoming compellingly addictive and growing in depth, each episode works well as a stand alone story, with the backstory deftly woven into the narrative and dialogue without detracting from the detail of the current investigation, making for a fluid, multi-layered, well structured storyline, which is rich in atmosphere and beautifully textured. The fluent and assured writing is visually descriptive, adding a wonderful three dimensional sense of time and place, which came to life on the pages as I was reading, transporting me back in time, immersing me in the action and making me part of the village life. Author Merryn Allingham, did an excellent job of changing the pace of the action and lowering the tension, only to ramp it back up again at a moments notice, just as I started to get comfortable with my new surroundings. Perhaps my one tiny niggle would be that, whilst Brighton is a real and tangible location, the village of Abbeymead is fictional, which doesn’t sit so comfortably with my ‘nerdy’ wish to have real places so I can physically track the action.

Jack and Flora are growing in stature with each episode in this village saga, as their relationship is slowly nurtured and begins to flourish. They are however, both badly shaken up by this most recent of cases. Jack because he realises that much against his better judgement, his feelings for Flora are growing deeper by the day and he wants to protect her. He is concerned about the age difference between them and the fact that hitherto he has been quite reclusive, struggling to become part of the community, because of a past which he can’t shake off and which refuses to let him move on. He knows deep down that this is very much his own state of mind and is therefore even more confused and concerned when he realises that little by little, Flora is breaking down his self imposed wall of exile and he is being ever so subtly, forced out into the open gaze of a village which is more than willing to embrace him, if only he will unburden himself and allow them to.

Flora is genuinely rocked to her core and has had her confidence badly knocked by her recent ordeals, and she too recognises the strength of the connection which is growing between Jack and herself, although she is not quite ready to cede to his gentle ministrations, fiercely strives to maintain her independence and is confused by her feelings of jealousy, when an unwanted face from Jack’s past turns up out of the blue. Behind all her surface bravado and bubbly confidence, Flora is actually quite a fragile and vulnerable person, for whom moving to Abbeymead to live with her aunt, was an emotional salvation for the distressed child, with the bookshop affording her a real sense of belonging and purpose to her future.

Once Jack and Flora have had the closest thing they have ever had to a true heart to heart conversation, it remains to be seen if they can move on together, or will an impending shift in focus, tear them apart rather than bring them closer?

Merryn has created a multi-faceted, well drawn, developed and defined cast of supporting characters who, whether they are on the side of good or bad, are authentically realistic to the times and genuinely believable in the individual roles which have been created for them. She has then afforded them all a good strong voice, with which to tell their story and direct the course of the action, which is probably just as well, as in this rather insular small community, everyone has an opinion and a wish to be heard, but only once you can prove that you can carve a worthwhile place for yourself amongst their ranks. Not all of the characters are easy to connect with or relate to, although generally the individual dynamics and synergy between them, works quite well, so whilst they may be quite complex and emotional, sometimes unreliable and a little vulnerable; they are all compelling, addictive, vibrant and totally worth investing in.

Engaging, enjoyable, emotional, escapist entertainment! – What more can I ask from a book?

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