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This is an interesting book, particularly for the history buff, as it concerns a missing panel from the Bayeux Tapestry with a fair amount of historical research evident. I like to believe that I know a thing or two about this period in British history but I still learnt something here and there, which added to my overall enjoyment of the novel.
Set in contemporary England the protagonist is an attractive Australian woman, Belinda Lawrence, a transplanted Melbournian who's inherited an income and a cottage near Bath, complete with a Capability Brown garden which attracts tourists and visitors. She has a serious relationship with a typically English eligible-man-about town, Mark Sallinger, and a serious friendship with grog-loving divorcee, Hazel Whitby, a dealer in antiques, through whom Belinda finds then becomes intrigued with what might be the end panel of the Bayeux Tapestry. The search for provenance which attracts other interested parties, nefarious deeds, suspect coincidences and two grisly murders, form the basis for a rollicking crime fiction novel. It offers a good sense of place, believable villains and situations, and, as noted, historical interest, which is never allowed to dominate the search for meaning and truth within the puzzle. THE EMBROIDERED CORPSE is a good, old fashioned, cozy-style book (and none the worse for that) and I appreciated the fact that I didn't have to read through page after page of psycho-babble or convoluted emotional trauma which seems so prevalent today, so badly executed, and often, so unoriginal. This is simply a good tale, well told.
I have, though, one or two quibbles with this book, which are probably idiosyncratic. Brian Kavanagh does a good job in writing the admirable Belinda Lawrence, but her bad tempered, sexually predatory and boozy older mate, Hazel, who 'profited monstrously' from a divorce settlement is a nuisance, and I suspect that the author thoroughly disapproves of her. She is rude and boorish, and apart from finding her superfluous, I found her an irritant, just as I found her bewildering and persistent mispronunciation or assumed ignorance of the name 'de Montfort' an irritant. Nobody in her rich, educated, middle class England would confuse or forget that name which has some cultural and historical importance - it just seemed a useless affectation to me. As for her use of liberal dyes and pigments' to defy time and gravity in her non ending pursuit of young 'spunks', well, my view is 'why NOT'? In a world of murder and mayhem, is that such a dreadful crime? She didn't deserve to be so severely punished for doing what many men over 45 do, and her sort of moral comeuppance leaves me somewhat dispirited at the still, apparently, prevailing double standard. Even the likeable Belinda herself annoyed me when the name of St Augustine came up while talking to the leader of a pseudo religious commune devoted to King Harold Godwineson. She professes ignorance of Augustine and his works, claiming that she knows no English history as she was educated in Australia! Well, I don't know where Belinda Lawrence supposedly went to school but I knew about St Augustine and Pope Gregory when I was in primary grades at a state school. Being Australian doesn't necessarily make one ignorant of the world's history or the West's most important influences and identities.
These personal strictures aside, I confess that I did like this book, overall, and found it interesting enough and well-paced enough to read it through almost in one sitting. There are some good, tense moments, an exciting climax, some clever insights into aspects of life in a so-called religious community and the small world of an English village (even our Belinda has succumbed to reading Country Life), and the peculiarities of the class and heritage obsessions which still linger in parts of middle and upper class England. The last laugh is, of course, on the guy who believes that he's Harold's descendant, thus making him the legitimate King of England. The real heir at the time of the Conquest was Edmund Ironside's great grandson, Edgar, son of Edgar the Atheling, which even William and Harold knew; indeed, it's suspected that Harold had the Atheling murdered, leaving the legit contender, Edgar the son, deemed, by the Saxon Witan, too young to rule England. Then, today, there is a school which will insist that until recently, the real monarch of those Britannic Isles was actually an Australian who's name was 'LeRoy' but who was always referred to by his family and intimates as ' LeRoi'. I was reliably told once that Ozzie Roy always received a birthday and Christmas card from the Palace, so perhaps we need another crime writing sleuth to tease out that mystery.
Finally: I purchased this book from the Internet, not being able to locate it anywhere else. The publisher's web page did not make it easy to find the 'buy' option, and I think that it might benefit from a small re-design. I also hope that the publisher is taking steps to improve distribution to general booksellers as I believe that Kavanagh's book would benefit a wider readership. I hope, too, that the publisher is aware of such things as The Ned Kelly Award (CWA), and, additionally, for it's female authors, Sisters in Crime's annual Davitt award. Just being listed would be enough to draw attention to Jacobyte Book's sterling efforts and its authors.
Reviewed by Anne Coulthurst, March 2003
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