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When a headless corpse turns up in the Thames in the ultra-affluent small town of Kings Richington DI Jack Dawes is under pressure from his superiors to wrap the matter up quickly and with little fuss so that the powerful inhabitants of the town will not cause trouble. However three more killings follow and as Dawes himself observes this "may be normal for Midsomer but it's a bit excessive for affluent, crime-free Kings Richington." His attempts to solve the case, aided and abetted by his caterer wife Corrie, are stymied at every turn by the desire of his superiors not to make any waves, or upset the rich and powerful who might hinder their precious careers.
The back cover of this book cites RTE saying on the basis of her first book NEMESIS OF THE DEAD, that Lloyd is "an author whom it will be well to follow"; as the author of that assessment I was naturally somewhat apprehensive that her second book would justify the comment. Fortunately it does. In part this is because of its quirkiness - a characteristic it shares with the first. One of the tasks which we have to complete as reviewers is to offer a few descriptive terms for the book we are questioning - 'police' 'amateur' 'female' historical' 'comedy' etc. It is always intriguing when a book comes along which it is hard to fit into those categories, or where what would normally be mutually exclusive categories appear to come together. This is the case here as THE BLUEBELL KILLER is an amalgam of police and amateur. One might say this was true of the first book as well, but in that the amateur side was very much to the fore. Here DI Dawes takes the lead, although Corrie's interventions are important enough to justify labelling the book as belonging to both police and amateur categories.
The use of a husband and wife team is also enough of a rarity to give the series considerable interest. This format offers a range of possibilities, although it needs some ingenuity to exploit them and generally precludes realism (not a major consideration here). The strengths and weaknesses of this second effort are much those of the first and are complementary. Lloyd's characterisation is rudimentary and tends strongly towards the stereotypical. Thus in the police team to which we are introduced, we have the keen young graduate entrant, the old-timer Sergeant fully complete with cynicism and a ravenous and omnivorous appetite, and useless superior officers obsessed with status, power and climbing the career ladder. The weakness of this kind of characterisation is that it lacks any psychological depth; the strength is that it can be very funny, and here Lloyd extracts particularly full value from the Sergeant and the superior. Again her sociological observations are ordinary and naïve and no-one should come to this book looking for realism or depth of either sociological or psychological insight. At times it has to be admitted that this can be a little jarring.
But turning to happier things the book's great strength is its plotting. Lloyd repeats exactly the trick of her first; while the villain is fairly obvious from quite a long way out all the whys and wherefores certainly are not. In addition she once again throws in a plot twist which took me completely by surprise but in retrospect made perfect sense and induced a 'stupid of me not to see it moment' - and authors who pull that off are all too thin on the ground. Lloyd's particular method for achieving this here has a great deal to do with names - and I suppose her fondness for this kind of play should be clear from her lead characters (Jack Dawes, Coriander for a cook). Mystery writers who achieve their plot surprises through language are probably even thinner on the ground and even more to be commended.
The only thing missing from THE BLUEBELL KILLER is the romance element which was well done in the first book, and I hope Lloyd can manage to work it into future instalments. The way in which she wraps up all the action is once again very competent and this book is much better paced than the first with no longeurs in the middle section. The prose is very good and her eye for an amusing and appropriate line impressive; in addition this book is very much funnier than the first and - hurrah - removes all woo-woo. The book is a very easy read (which it is clearly intended to be). All in all THE BLUEBELL KILLER, I am relieved to say, more than justifies my claim. While I was surprised that Lloyd moved her action, almost her sub-genre, to an English police investigation, she carries this off with aplomb. The book, quite apart from her own self-referencing, does have certain echoes of Caroline Graham's Midsomer books - but as these are very probably the best in the English small town genre of the past few decades that is no bad thing! Any too close resemblance is averted by the use of the original husband/wife, professional/amateur format. I have no idea whether her next move will be to continue with a mainly 'police' setting or revert to a mainly ‘amateur' setting - a Dawes book or a Corrie book: my own preference, which would enhance her uniqueness, would be to alternate the two. THE BLUEBELL KILLER gives evidence that Lloyd is indeed an author to follow and firmly establishes her as a writer with a distinctive voice and format of her own; when added to her considerable skill in providing genuinely interesting plot twists a lengthy mystery writing career is to be hoped for.
§ Nick Hay lives in Birmingham, UK where he spends a lot of his time reading mysteries (and trying to write about them).
Reviewed by Nick Hay, July 2010
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