Murder Room Top Ten author Deborah Valentine reviews November’s Book of the Month, A Little Gentle Sleuthing by Betty Rowlands, and finds that for Rowlands’ detective, Melissa Craig, moving to the English countryside is not quite the idyllic escape she was planning . . .
In the canon of female detectives, Rowlands’ Melissa Craig ranks as one who comes to sleuthing more by accident than inclination, and in doing so it becomes a journey of personal discovery for her character.
When crime novelist Craig buys a ramshackle cottage in the Cotswolds, her vision is of a quiet country life where she can write her books in peace and also, though she can scarcely admit it to herself, distance herself from her overprotective married lover. While she is a successful novelist and has raised a son as a single mother, he still insists she needs ‘looking after’ in a way that rankles.
He keeps calling her ‘his darling girl’ (which, quite frankly, would be enough for me to want to take a hammer to his head). But it’s hard to let go of someone who is essentially kind, to admit their ‘kindnesses’ are an irritation and reinforce the notion that you just can’t take care of yourself. You are, essentially, a child; or, more romantically but every bit as patronising, an old-fashioned damsel straight out of Wilkie Collins sans white nightie.
A Little Gentle Sleuthing turns out to be as much about Craig’s search for independence and self-reliance as about the crime itself.
She deals with builders surprised and aggrieved at a snagging list (a well-known phenomenon); she learns about gardening and growing her own food from her artist neighbour, a woman who is enamoured of her cat and the cherubic local vicar, yet still retains a delicious down-to-earth cynicism; she is plagued by an hysterical caller asking for ‘Babs’, who won’t listen when she tells him he’s calling the wrong number.
Yes: enter a cast of both likeable and unlikeable Home Counties characters who, with all their secret peccadilloes, would not be out of place in a Miss Marple novel. Yet unlike Christie’s Miss Marple, whose spinsterish knowledge of village life and busybody observance of human nature (I’ve always felt she had a sinister aspect) keeps getting her involved, or even P. D. James’ classic Cordelia Gray, who continues to practise as a private detective out of loyalty to her sadly deceased partner, Craig is pushed and prodded into sleuthing by an all too eager journalist, and the fact that a murder is committed more or less on her doorstep.
So much for the gentle country life.
But Craig discovers that the mind of a writer, of crime or of anything else, is not so different from that of a detective, sussing out clues to character and motive, taking risks. By channelling a fictional detective alter ego, the hero of her own crime novels, Nathaniel Latimer, she balances the possible, the probable and the bare facts.
She is led into terrifying situations and confronts her fear, yet the writer in her can always detach, take mental notes – this is what fear really feels like, this is what it’s like to find a body, this is what I must look for, this is what I must do, this is where I draw the line. She finds the reality in fiction and fiction in the reality, and discovers her inner resources in the process. And, like life, it doesn’t always come easy.
The book’s title is rather ironic. For sleuthing is not gentle, no matter how carefully one goes about it. Crime is crime, and it is not kind and cosy. Secrets want to remain just that, violence begets more violence; and there is always an aftermath of sorrow and guilt on someone’s part, no matter what good you might think you are doing. Craig discovers this, to her cost.
Yet she also finds out what she is capable of, and in this, the freedom to make her own decisions, however dubious some of them might be; and that whether or not she needs ‘someone to take care of her’ may all be a matter of perspective.
Peace at last . . . just not the kind she expected.