Thursday, January 25, 2024

Maybe Not So Cozy After All

(Editor’s note: This is the fourth Rap Sheet submission by Northern California resident Peter Handel, who has reviewed and written about crime fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle, the Portland Oregonian, Pages Magazine, Mystery Readers International, and CrimeReads. He previously looked back at Adrian McKinty’s early works.)

On the surface, Death Under a Little Sky (Harper) checks off many of the boxes for cozy-ness chill. Small rural English village. Lush, expansive open spaces. Plucky shopkeeper, harmless oddballs, quirky—but maybe not so harmless—local denizens with a not-atypical suspicion of “outsiders.”

The village fabric is torn, however, with the arrival of Jake Jackson, a 38-year-old retired London cop, seeking healing and solitude after his marriage collapsed. He’s generally feeling discouraged about love, although a fetching, mixed-race, single mother who is the local veterinarian does catch his barely wandering eye.

Oh, there’s also a huge property and house that’s been left to our copper by his “eccentric” but generous late uncle. All in all, it’s a placid set-up, until the day of an annual village event, a contest involving a bag of “bones” that’s hidden every year for the villagers to find. Thing is, when Jake and the vet, Livia Bennett, and her precocious (natch) 7-year-old daughter, Diana, do locate the faux bone bag, it contains actual human skeletal remains, not just the usual sticks of wood.

We learn that the bones may be those of a German woman, Sabine Rohmer, who worked at a notorious, large local farm (occupied by a hard-bitten crowd: think glowering, stony matriarch and some half-wit grown sons). Sabine was found dead a decade ago after falling (?) out of a window at that farm. Unsurprisingly, no one wants to talk about it … As the Richard Thompson song famously asks, “Did She Jump Or Was She Pushed.” Sabine was also a figure of erotic longing for many of the men in the village, including Jake’s uncle and a ubiquitous, elderly man called Dr. Peter. It’s soon discovered that her crypt in a local church has been breached.

And so the probing begins!

Jake is compelled to poke around for clues; the villagers are compelled to blow off his queries; and Dr. Peter, offbeat intellectual and hedgerow expert, feeds Jake tidbits of what information he has gleaned about Sabine’s death. Added into this mix is the local representative of British law, such as it is in the middle of nowhere, a somewhat taciturn, older and thoughtful chap, Chief Inspector Gerald Watson. (Crime novels are read and referenced throughout this novel, as are rock music and classical composer Gustave Mahler.)

Before we realize it, the story’s initial “cozy” trappings have become a faded ruse the author, Stig Abell—who was once editor of the Times Literary Supplement, among his other well-known media accomplishments in the UK—has cleverly contrived.

Abell’s erudite background elevates the prose throughout this story, lending it a literary tinge. Here, for instance, is his lovely, muted description of a pub where Jake meets Watson:
A smoky fire, the sweet, cloying scent of spilled beer, a pensive dog staring lugubriously out of the window. Thick, scarred oaken beams criss-crossing low ceilings.
As Jake begins to delve more deeply into the village dynamics, violence begins. Because of their burgeoning association with Jake, Livia and Diana’s calm lives turn perilous. Another murder occurs, and the former London detective is nearly killed on more than one occasion.

In a recent essay for CrimeReads, Abell mused about the murderous possibilities to be found in rural English settings: “In the British countryside, nobody can hear you scream. It’s an arresting notion, and one that worked its way into my mind, insidious, waiting for its moment to flower into an entire fictional setting.”

He goes on from there to talk about his lifelong love of crime fiction and how—and why—he chose to write his debut mystery.

With its many almost-clichés, its blend of either endearing or appalling supporting characters, its melodrama between Livia and Jake, and its expertly plotted mystery, Death Under a Little Sky offers a most enjoyable reading experience. Happy ending? You betcha. (Shhh!)

Is it too much to hope for a sequel?

1 comment:

HonoluLou said...

Enticing review! After 24 years we have a new mayor in our little burg of Brecksville, Ohio. I'm going to recommend the buried bag-of-bones game to the new mayor for the next Home Days celebration...Sounds fun!