Friday, August 2, 2013

Book Review - Catriona McPherson's After the Armistice Ball

After the Armistice Ball (Dandy Gilver Book 1) by Catriona McPherson
Published by: Robinson
Publication Date: 2006
Format: Kindle, 308 Pages
Rating: ★★
To Buy

Dandy Gilver has never thought that she might be a detective. Yet that's exactly what her friend Daisy is begging of her. Their mutual "friend" Lena Duffy claims that her very expensive diamonds were stolen at Daisy's estate after Daisy's grand Armistice Ball. It has taken awhile for the "crime" to come to light because they were replaced with paste and it wasn't until a jeweller pointed this out to Lena's daughter Cara a few months later that the "crime" was discovered. Now Lena, whose husband is shockingly in trade, and insurance at that, is demanding that they pay for the diamonds, despite the fact that it can't be proven if the theft occurred when Lena says it did, and the more obvious fact that the insurance had lapsed on the jewels.

Daisy has invited the Duffy's back to her house and has begged Dandy to come along too. Daisy admires that Dandy is able to bluntly cut to the gist of a matter without overly offending anyone by just being herself. Daisy wants Dandy to wrinkle Lena out, find out what is really going on and why Lena is trying to extort them! After the house party, Dandy is still hot on the trail of the truth when she is invited to a small cabin by the sea that Lena and her two daughters have taken. Dandy is able to enlist the help of Cara's fiance after he receives an abrupt letter from Cara ending their engagement with the wedding only a few days away. When they arrive in the small hamlet, the delightful cottage has burned to the ground with Cara inside. They must all stay for the inquest, and in that time Dandy has time to mull things over. There is no way the death and the diamonds are not connected. Dandy's first full fledged case will take her where she never thought she'd go, and will risk more then just her own life.

When I was at my local bookstore one day I picked up a book by Catriona McPherson. The book was titled, Dandy Gilver and the Proper Treatment of Bloodstains. The title and the lovely cover designed by Jessica Hische made it a no-brainer buy. Of course, as is often my luck, whenever I find a great book at a store it invariably ends up being not the first or even the second in a series... in this case it is the fifth. I cannot read a book out of order, but, you know what, I think that this series my be an exception to my hard and fast rule. After the Armistice Ball has some issues right from the first chapter, mainly, you feel as if you've been dumped unceremoniously into the middle of a story with people who you should remember at an event you know you've been invited to, but you have no idea who they are or where it is. This lack of introductions and place meant that I could have easily picked up any book in the series and still had the feeling that I was missing something. The first book should neatly establish place and characters, with subsequent volumes doing only a short recap. A good editor could have quickly fixed this by just having Catriona write a nice intro paragraph or two setting up where the action of the book takes place, it's Scotland by the way, so as you won't be confused for a quarter of the book, and have Dandy fleshed out a little more then her friends just dropping veiled hints as to her personality. Something can't be "so Dandy" unless we know what she is so like! Luckily the readers ignorance wanes as the book progresses.

Dandy Gilver has got to be one of the most unique creations in twenties historical fiction today, that is once we get to know her properly. She doesn't fit into any well defined sleuth category and this makes her a breath of fresh air. She is not male. She is not a young single woman who has been disowned or at the very least frowned upon by her family as being "eccentric" and "beyond the pale." She isn't widowed and therefore at leisure to travel hither and yon without the gimlet eye of society fast upon her. Instead she is married, one could argue for, not happily, but at least contentedly, with a slightly oblivious spouse. She has no intentions of leaving her husband either, he just bumbles around talking about drainage ditches while she does as she pleases. She has children! Not fully grown, so that they put Dandy into the spinster category, she is still young enough to be of child bearing years, hear that? Young! Also handily the children are usually off at boarding school, which is a blessing, because children can get underfoot when one is sleuthing. So that means Dandy can move about society without impunity and she can closet herself away and solve crimes with male friends without eyebrows (or at least too many eyebrows) being raised. A respectable crime solver, how about that?

Yet Dandy is by no means perfect. While it takes awhile to get the gist as to why she would be the perfect crime solver, it basically comes down to the fact that she is overly blunt and has a tendency to stick her foot in her mouth by saying something that no one else would dare say. "Discussing loud and plain what everyone else is thinking about but dare not mention." But this habit of hers makes her come across as a little callow, though she is far from it, and therefore leads people to confide in her, the ideal trait for someone who wants to root around in your life to have. She may be a little dense, a little artless, sometimes easily confused or led astray, with it being hard for her to know where her facts end and her fancies begin. Yet all this together does make a good-ish detective. Like most of the best detectives, she tends to take awhile to get to the point and gets the wrong end of the stick, but this is what makes a book have a compelling narrative. You don't want it over and done with five pages in. Though there is one random trait of Dandy's that I just can't wrap my head around. She really puts down men. Now I'm not saying she's a man-hater (which her overly protective maid obviously is), but she does tend to put down the opposite sex quite a lot, and while Dandy might be befuddled by clues most of the time, this odd character trait has me a little befuddled.

As for the plot itself... once I came to gripes with what was going on, ie, Scotland, Dandy, the rest of the characters all fell into place. While the diamond theft and the murder are relatively simple plot devices, Catriona does a good job of layering the mysteries and doling out the clues so that the book clips along. Yet there was the nagging feeling I had, quite early on, about a third of the way through the book, that I was on the right track, unlike Dandy. It turned out that I was indeed right, but the little wrinkle thrown in helped to make the ending still satisfying. Though with all the tiring to and fro across the countryside, I really do realize that the lure of the Golden Age of Detection was the actually leg work, but this was a bit much, it was the small details that made this book have memorable moments, excluding the vagueness of the ending. The most striking of these moments is the photographs of the dead Cara. They way they are discussed and how they play into the plot make a book that would have just been average reach new heights.


Newer Post Older Post Home