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by Frances Brody
Piatkus, October 2009
368 pages
7.99 GBP
ISBN: 0749941871

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

In this book, the first of a planned series, the protagonist is Kate Shackleton a 31-year-old war widow living in Leeds in 1923. Daughter of a police superintendent and a member of the minor nobility, she lives alone in the house she and her husband Gerald occupied; Gerald was one of the many whose corpse was never recovered at the Western Front, and Kate still retains some hopes, even though she acknowledges them to be illusory, that he may be alive. Since the war, in which she served in the VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) she has helped a few people track down missing persons on a totally amateur basis; however it is a very different proposition when an old VAD colleague, Tabitha Braithwaite, offers to employ her to find out the truth about what has happened to her father.

The mill-owner Joshua Braithwaite disappeared in August 1916; he was discovered in a brook by Boy Scouts and, it being believed that he had been attempting suicide, he was sent to a local hospital treating shell-shock and other psychiatric cases. After a night there he walked out and was never seen again. Tabitha, who is getting married in a few weeks time, is convinced that he is alive and wants Kate to track him down. With the help of Jim Sykes, an ex-policeman whom her father recommends, Kate takes on the case and starts to delve into the past. To discover what has happened Kate has to enter the world of the mill, its processes, managers, owners and workers. As she investigates, violence resurfaces and two murders occur; Kate herself is placed in a situation of great danger, but finally she uncovers the full truth about the disappearance of Joshua Braithwaite.

Frances Brody is the 'crime pseudonym' (to quote her web-site) of Frances McNeil who has previously written four non-crime novels. She also, according to the biographical information given in the book, tutors writing courses. I think that the problems with DYING IN THE WOOL are, in fact, precisely that it often feels like a writing exercise. Throw in a spunky independent female protagonist, quite a bit of social realism and historical detail, a dash of romance, a bit of sex, some real-life personages (Mr and Mrs Conan Doyle turn up at a London dinner-party Kate attends), some woman-in-jeopardy, a mystery plot and cook together. It is not that some of these elements are not quite well done - the historical detail is obviously well-researched, and the small sex scene surprisingly good. But as a whole it all feels a tad mechanical. And there are problems with the two major elements.

First Kate Shackleton herself is not a particularly engaging protagonist, or more accurately her voice (the novel is first-person narrative) is not original or interesting or attractive enough to really capture the attention. Now it may be that this is in part due to the necessity of bringing in all the necessary biographical information in this first book and she can be developed as the series develops. At present a passion for photography and a self-aware determination to be independent do not a character make. Second, though even more important, the mystery plot is merely average. One gets the feeling that this was merely another element in the recipe. But, for all except the greatest of writers, this is not so; this is why the genre is different. Plot, plot, plot - that is what needs to be taught on a mystery writing course as opposed to a general novel course.

DYING IN THE WOOL is by no means a particularly bad book, but if the series is to make its mark then Brody will have in the first place to develop Kate's character, and in the second come up with much better plots than that on display here.

Reviewed by Nick Hay, January 2010

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