I hunted down a copy of this for a monthly read of the English Mysteries Goodreads group; I’d never read any of the Midsomer Murders novels before, and somehow never even saw any of the PBS Mystery! series made from them, so it was all new and different. (Really, though, I don’t know how I managed to miss these all these years.)
The plot summary: an elderly woman is found dead in her cottage in a lovely-seeming English village, and because her best friend will not back down from her assertion that it was not a natural death Chief Inspector Barnaby and his sidekick Sgt. Troy are sent in to look into it. In the course of their investigation, the cozy, charming village cracks wide open to reveal a seamy, sordid gooey interior that would make Miss Marple blanch. (Well, maybe not.) Incest, adultery, murder, attempted murder, blackmail, incest (did I miss anything?) … It all comes spewing out when Barnaby begins to poke into things. (Was anyone other than Barnaby sleeping with who they were supposed to be?)
I’ll admit, I’m not a huge fan of the sort of novel that insists that beneath every idyllic appearance is something awful. And after a while the sheer volume of sordidness began to push the envelope; I mean, really? Nearly every single person in the village had some horrible secret whose discovery might have led to murder? It might have been refreshing if there had been someone besides the victim and her friend (Misses Simpson and Bellringer, respectively) had been guilty of no more than a late library book. But no. The positive side to this is that I never saw the solution to the puzzle coming – with the rather satisfying conclusion that, really, it’s the only answer that really makes sense to the question of “who was it Miss Simpson saw in the woods”: no other pair would, in so-modern 1982, really necessarily care enough or have enough to lose as to be driven to kill someone who saw them.
That being said, some of the characterizations were fun. The best things about the book were Miss Bellringer and Barnaby and his family. The former is unapologetic – she knows there is something wrong about her friend’s death, and she’ll be dashed if she doesn’t see to it that it’s solved. She’s a bit of a heroine. I’d be perfectly happy with a series centered around her.
And the latter, Barnaby and his wife and daughter, are terrific. One of my deepest sources of irritation in any book or tv series featuring these high-stress non-9-to-5 jobs (cop, lawyer, doctor) is the clichéd storyline of the wife (usually) who constantly complains and nags over the unpredictability of the spouse’s job, and usually leaves. I love that Joyce, Barnaby’s missus, is a real partner to him, interested in his work and understanding of the fact that his schedule is not predictable. I hope that doesn’t change.
Speaking of partners … Sgt. Troy, the cynical, sarcastic terrible driver who is Barnaby’s associate on the job, was a surprise. I don’t recall ever seeing a relationship like this in a mystery series. Troy’s prejudices and bitterness, once I got past the initial shock of the pure internal disrespect his external smarminess covered, made for kind of a nice change from other series where the chief can do no wrong, held in the highest esteem. There’s some scope there, with Troy snarking away in his head and Barnaby unable to resist baiting and teasing him.
One aspect I feel is a flaw, but which might have been somewhat unavoidable in a series’ opening novel, is the insistence on providing the two supporting characters, Troy and Joyce, with a Flaw: Troy is a terrible driver and Joyce is a terrible cook. It casts a kind of unsuitably comic light on the story, as Barnaby walks away from a life-threatening breakfast table to embark on a life-threatening drive with his partner. (Aren’t the police supposed to have some sort of intensive driving course?) This bit – and the setting of the Classic English Village – make it feel like a cozy mystery – but for me the graphic descriptions of some of the deaths keeps it out of the subgenre of Cozy. (Also, I always think of a cozy as having an amateur detective lead, but don’t quote me.)
This wouldn’t be a proper review if I failed to mention the Rainbirds. I heard (read) a lot about them as I got ready to read Badger’s Drift … and … honestly? While they were horrors, they didn’t quite live up to their billing as dreadfulness in the extreme . I don’t know whether that was a relief or a disappointment …
I’ve already tracked down the second book in the series, and watched the PBS adaptation of Badger’s (which was great fun, and faithful enough to be going on with). I liked this, and I will certainly read (and watch) more in the series. It won’t, however, be a high priority.
- New on DVD – Midsomer Murders: Mayhem & Mystery Files (reellifewithjane.com)