Jul 21, 2011

After the Armistice Ball and Death at Wentwater Court

After the Armistice Ball Death at Wentwater Court

I entirely blame Jodie, who got me hooked on Downtown Abbey and interested in 1920’s set TV series The Grand, for my recent compulsion to read novels set in the early twentieth-century and/or in country mansions. After the Armistice Ball by Catriona McPherson and Death at Wentwater Court by Carola Dunn are both high-society historical mysteries set in the 1920’s, and both of them feature unconventional female sleuths. In After the Armistice Ball, Dandy Gilver, a Scottish society lady of a certain age, is asked by a friend to discretely look into the matter of the disappearance of the famous Duffy diamonds, as this friends has reasons to suspect insurance fraud. The plot thickens considerably when a member of the Duffy family dies in mysteries circumstances, and suddenly Dandy finds herself involved in something far more sinister than she had imagined.

In Death at Wentwater Court, our sleuth is Daisy Dalrymple, a young woman determined to support herself through her writing and photography rather than depend on her rich but less than pleasant family. Daisy goes to Wentwater Court to write the first in a series of articles about stately homes for Town & Country magazine. While she’s there, one of the Earl’s guests, a Lord Stephen Astwick, meets an untimely death while skating on the lake. What Daisy cannot help but wonder is: could the convenient death of someone everyone at Wentwater Court had reasons to hate truly have been an accident?

After the Armistice Ball and Death at Wentwater Court are similar enough in terms of overall structure and period detail that I almost wish I hadn’t read them so close together – I rather suspect that a few months from now I might be getting the details mixed up. However, if there’s one thing that completely sets them apart it’s each novel’s tone.

After the Armistice Ball is narrated by Dandy herself, who is humorous, self-aware, and prone to referencing Sherlock Holmes. But for all her sense of humour, Dandy is also sensitive to other people’s feelings, and regardless of her privileged status she remains socially conscientious. The mystery in After the Armistice Ball turns out to be closely tied up with unfair inheritance laws, gender inequality, and social trappings that particularly affect women – and the meaning of these things doesn’t escape Dandy’s notice. I hope I’m not making her sound like a modern day feminist in 1920’s attire: Dandy does have her blind spots (some of which are quite crucial to the resolution of the mystery), but even what she takes for granted or fails to question is quite visible to the reader. This isn’t necessarily easy to achieve with a first person narration, so kudos to Ms McPherson.

I also have to mention how absolutely gripping After the Armistice Ball was: I’m the kind of mystery reader who tends to be more interested in what else is going on in the novel besides the mystery – setting, character dynamics, social commentary, and so on. McPherson’s novel does deliver on all these fronts, but the mystery itself really grabbed me. I couldn’t wait to find out what was really going on.

Death at Wentwater Court seems far more solemn at first, but it actually turns out to be a far frothier and less meaty novel. Though I enjoyed the book overall, there were a few things that put me off. The first is that Carola Dunn uses close third person at first and tells the story through Daisy’s point of view; but when Scotland Yard inspector Alec Fletcher enters the scene there’s an abrupt shift to his point of view, and readers suddenly find themselves looking at Daisy from the outside. From then on, there are several sudden and inconsistent shifts whenever Alec is present. If this seems an odd thing to complain about or even to notice, that’s exactly my point: point of view shifts should be smooth enough that readers won’t even notice them, rather than unexpected and awkward enough to pull us out of the story.

Secondly, even though not all the characters in Death at Wentwater Court are exactly conventional (there’s Daisy herself, for example, and her “confounded scribbling” as one male character puts it), Carola Dunn’s readiness to make use of stereotypes made me a little uncomfortable. This is far truer of the secondary characters than the main ones, but still. For example, she has the maids going around giggling and gossiping, and police constables be dense enough to say, after getting a phone call from a coroner, “I couldn’t say for sure, miss, ‘cepting he’s doing some tests as he’ll have the results of come morning. Such long words them doctors use, you can’t rightly make head nor tail of ‘em”. Regardless of what I know to be true about class, education and accent during this period, it all seemed a bit much.

Finally, I had trouble suspending my disbelief regarding Daisy’s involvement in the investigation at all: Alec, the Scotland Yard inspector, is all too ready to let a perfect stranger be involved in police matters. The setup of After the Armistice Ball – where a well-connected society lady is asked to discreetly look into something by a good friend who suspects someone of taking advantage of her husband’s insurance company, but doesn’t want to risk scandal or blow the whistle without further evidence – is far more convincing.

As you might except from any novel set in the 1920’s, the impact of the Great War echoes through both After the Armistice Ball and Death at Wentwater Court. Dandy Gilver was fortunate enough not to have lost a close family member, but as the novel opens she confesses how bored she is, now that the opportunities the war opened up for women like her are closed again and she’s expected to simply resume being a lady of leisure. Daisy, a younger woman, lost both her fiancée and her brother. The exact circumstances and implications of theses loses are only alluded to slightly, but I expect that this background story will be explored in more depth as the series progresses.

If there’s one thing a good mystery needs it’s a satisfying ending, and After the Armistice Ball certainly does have one: it’s one of those endings where a final chilling realisation by our sleuth adds new implications and a whole new layer of meaning to the story. In the case of Death at Wentwater Court, however, I’m afraid that the ending was a bit too the-rich-and-powerful-can-get-away-with-crimes-and-anyway-killing-a-very-unpleasant-person-is-not-really-that-bad for my liking. This is of course something that happens in reality to our day, let alone in the 1920’s, so I have nothing whatsoever against mystery fiction portraying it. And I also agree with Daisy that the law and justice don’t always go hand in hand. But I felt that the implications of what happens (in terms of power, privilege and social justice, for example) were only considered very superficially, and this unfortunately gives the whole book a hollow, facile tone. It was this superficiality, rather than the lack of a clear criminals-shall-be-punished moral lesson, that let me down. I realise that the book never pretends to be anything other than a cosy mystery, but I still wanted a little more complexity.

Having said that, I can see people enjoying these novels equally for different reasons. However, to me Catriona McPherson is the superior writer. Furthermore, her interests, focus and sensibility seem far more aligned with my own than Dunn’s, which made it easier for me to feel at home with her writing. While I don’t feel compelled to pick up the next Dandy Gilver mystery immediately, I expect I will read it at some point. As for Daisy Dalrymple, I’m not so sure whether we’ll meet again. Life is too short, and there are far too many other series out there. I have to confess that even the more enjoyable After the Armistice Ball made me wonder why I wasn’t reading the next Mary Russell instead.

They read them too:
If You Can Read This (After the Armistice Ball)
Bride of the Book God (After the Armistice Ball)
GeraniumCat’s Bookshelf (After the Armistice Ball)
Books & Other Thoughts (Death at Wentwater Court)
Beth Fish Reads (Death at Wentwater Court)

(You?)

19 comments:

  1. I've read both of these as well and agree with you. But there's just something about the interwar period and historical mysteries which are like a drug to me and I can't help reading them;P

    Have you tried the Lord Edward Corinth mysteries by David Roberts? Has lots of communists and the Spanish Civil War in it - may be more to your taste as they are darker and meatier.

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  2. I thought the Dunn book was a lot of fun but I didn't read right along side McPherson. In fact, I haven't read McPherson at all.

    Yes, the Daisy books are light and fun reads -- and I like that about them. But I can see how it would pale next to a book like After the Armistice Ball.

    I am adding McPherson to my list now and I bet I'll like her better too!

    It's interesting though that I never went past the second book in Dunn's series. It is also possible that the abrupt changes you noticed in the print book were less noticeable in the audio.

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  3. I have not heard of these authors at all and am now adding them to my list to read them in the near future.

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  4. I bet my mother would love these. Those covers are just fabulous.

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  5. I have really been enjoying Downton Abbey, too. I apparently need to look into The Grand.

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  6. I have never heard of either of these books, but you make a valid case for me to read them! I also like the sound of The Grand as well, and might have to look into it. Thanks for the compare and contrast on these books, Ana!

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  7. The covers remind me of some of the paper doll sets I had as a child. Lovely review :D

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  8. When were these books written? Contemporary to the period or after the fact?

    Also, I could make a statement about how sexist it is to switch to a dominant male POV from a female one. Just because the guy is a detective, that doesn't mean he is so much smarter :-P

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  9. These sound like fun. And I'll check out The Grand, I'm always on the lookout for good tv series!

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  10. Sakura: I have not, but it sounds right up my alley. Thanks! To the wishlist it goes.

    Beth F: I can see how that wouldn't show as much on the audio. I did have fun with Death at Wentwater Court, but yeah, it paled a bit in comparison to After the Armistice Ball. I hope you enjoy it when you get to it!

    Veens: Enjoy!

    Kathy: Yes, aren't they? I love the vintage look of them.

    Kelly: I'm only two episode into The Grand and so far it's not as good as Downton Abbey - but still worth watching!

    Zibilee: It's an older series, and it might be harder to find in the US, but I hope you manage to!

    Kelly: I think I know the kind you mean!

    Sheila: They were :)

    Aarti: They are both modern, ongoing series - Carola Dunn's is older, but the first book is from 1994, so not THAT old. And I know! I think the reason why is the fact that the detective is a love interest, but that almost made it worse - the first time we're dragged inside his head is to see him appreciate Daisy physically, and this after 80+ pages of seeing things from her point of view. It was really off-putting to me.

    Joanna: I hope you'll enjoy it! And the books too if you decide to pick them up :)

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  11. Hmmm... I'm sure you will be able to guess which of these two will end up on my wish list ;) Thanks for the review!

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  12. Love Downton Abbey and where it was going. I can't believe I have to wait until like 2013 for the next bits of the story.... grr...Julian Fellowes should have predicted there's no way this story could be fit into one season!!

    --Sharry

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  13. Amy: Hehehe, I think I can guess :P The other one wasn't terrible or anything, but yeah.

    Sharry: Noooooooooo! Somehow I was convinced season two was coming this September. My heart is now broken :|

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  14. Both of them appeal to me, but what I really need to do is watch Downton Abbey!!

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  15. Wonderful reviews, Ana! I loved the fact that you compared and contrasted the two novels! 'Death at Wentwater Court' somehow reminds me of Agatha Christie's 'Murder on the Orient Express'.

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  16. I regret nothing! And I say again with emphasis 'Gosford Park'. Oh man I want to watch it again just thinking about it. In continuing recommendations I also read a book called 'Markham Thorpe' a few years ago which was supposed to be the novel equivalent of 'Gosford' and while it very much wasn't, it was interesting in its own way (servant, begins affair with slightly disturbed but sincere master and ends up at the centre of weird house politics). It was kind of...malevolent?

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  17. For some reason, I thought you were always interested in books set in the 1920's. ;)

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  18. Haha, as I'm a cosy crime freak, I really enjoyed both these sleuths. They don't make particularly great books to deconstruct but they are not obnoxiously dumb :D

    And I really seem to be the only person who doesn't like the Mary Russell books. Only read the first one, but I found the Mary/ Holmes thing creepy, she's so young!

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.