Something nasty in the woodshedSometimes when I read mysteries by British women writers, which is as often as I can, a phrase from Stella Gibbons's Cold Comfort Farm comes to mind: the something nasty in the woodshed once seen by Aunt Ada Doom.
An odd connection to make, you may think, considering that Gibbons's brilliant parody is not a mystery and that a woodshed is not a common element in mysteries. But for me the connection is real and, given the odd workings of my mind and the principle of six degrees of separation, easily made. Usually there is something indefinably nasty lurking in the background of such British mysteries, something shudderingly different from the garden-variety sex, violence, and betrayal of American crime novels. Just as we never quite learn what it was in the woodshed that frightened Aunt Ada Doom, so are we often uncertain of the source of the nastiness in the mysteries. Sometimes even after we've read the last page.
So it is in Frances Fyfield's latest suspense novel, Blind Date. In it, the kernel of the mystery as well as the wellsprings of the nastiness might lie in the sentiment, How do you make people love you? Variations on the enigmatic phrase are planted throughout, either as a thought of one of the characters or as the unseen narrator's comment.
Caroline Smythe thinks it early in the novel. Caroline is spending, as she has for years, a two-week holiday at the bed-and-breakfast of an old acquaintance, Diana Kennedy. To say that Diana's family are old friends would be false, as Caroline bitterly knows; what Diana has offered over the years is merely a pretense of friendship, laced with insults and rejection. Caroline has more than a passing interest in love in at least one of its forms. She runs an introduction service, a dating agency. The phrase arises again, twice, when Patsy, one of a quartet of young women friends, signs up with her agency.
Another of the quartet is Elisabeth, Diana's daughter and a former policewoman who is recovering from severe wounds inflicted by an attacker. The wounds pain her less than the memory of her sister, Emma, slain by an attacker. Even more painful is her belief that she had caught the attacker, but he was freed by a judge who ruled her pursuit entrapment. The man subsequently killed himself, leaving behind the horrifying suspicion that he was not the killer after all. How, Elisabeth wonders, had she made the suspect love her? Even young Matthew, Emma's son being raised partly by Diana, is affected. Stubbornly independent, reclusive, and besotted with gems as his late jeweler grandfather was, Matthew thinks, You are only as good as the people who love you. . . . How do you make people love you? Perhaps there can be too much of love, if it's of the wrong kind, such as the smothering love of Caroline for her mama's-boy son, Michael. He is, to return to that word, a nasty piece of work, just like his mother. He emulated her gleeful messing up of other lives, but he took it to extremes. Patsy is injured by an attacker and yet another of the quartet, Angela, is murdered by one. Are all of the attacks and murders being committed by the same person?Other questions arise, as they often do in mysteries. Did Matthew witness the murder of his mother and the attack on his Aunt Elisabeth? Who is Joe Maxell, besides being an acquaintance of Michael's, and why is he sharing Elisabeth's flat in the tower of a London church, a place so eccentric it defied belief? Why do all of these people seem to know each other?If there is any noticeable weakness in the novel, it rises out of that last question. The stew of personalities and murky motivations can be frustrating to deal with. On the other hand, it could be said that muddle is not a flaw but a hallmark of the mystery novel, so many of which have trouble keeping up with the dead bodies and how and why they got that way.
Fyfield's mystery finally answers most of the questions it raises. It doesn't open wide the door to the identity of the killer, but we know who's behind it, and we've been led to the doorstep fairly early. The central, repeated question, however, goes unanswered. As to that, Joe and Elisabeth could tell us, you don't make it happen, it just does.
Roger Miller is a freelance writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org