Bellfield Hall – Anna Dean

This was on my paperbackswap wishlist (I don’t remember why); it became available, and I pounced. While still in a sort of “I don’t care, there’s too much crap going on for me to not just read what I want to read” mood I firmly ignored all the Netgalley books clamoring on the sidelines, picked this off the upper slopes of Mount TBR, and settled in.

I loved it from the start. I was a little afraid at first – the Regency period spinster aunt swooping in to Detect felt like a mish-mash of various storylines that Have Been Done. Happily, this was, like Miss Dido Kent, highly individual – and delightful. You know how there are certain words that just aren’t fashionable anymore, aren’t used much anymore, just don’t often apply to much anymore? “Delightful” is one of those. I do enjoy a book I can apply it to. In some ways it does feel like it borrows from everything from Austen to Miss Marple – but I don’t say that to run it down. I say that to grin about how a really fine writer can merrily mix together familiar ingredients and produce something unique and lovely.

Bellfield Hall is a bit of a classic English Country House Mystery (™), in that there is a group of people gathered together in a home not their own, and Miss Kent (coming in after the fact) must work with a topography and schedule and staff new to her to discover whether it is her niece’s fiancé who has committed a dreadful murder – which is certainly what he has made it seem like, since he up and disappeared, breaking the engagement by letter with no real explanation before making his exit. Dido alone supports her niece in the belief that he had some other reasons, reasons of honor, to vanish, and Dido alone begins to dig.

In the process of the investigation she comes to know the other temporary denizens of the house, most of whom must be considered suspects. There are the two sisters being shopped around by their father for husbands, who don’t seem to be what they seem to be; there is the reckless young man who has gambled and drunk away a small fortune he never had in the fine Edwardian style of young dandies, and his honorable father who is going distracted trying to find a way to extricate his son, and himself, from the mess. The latter happens to be an intriguing gentleman, and handsome, and very attentive to Miss Kent …

Dido makes for an interesting, engaging sleuth. She doesn’t stray so very far from what is probable and acceptable in a woman of her period; she adheres to the mores of the time, for the most part, and manufactures plausible excuses for the departures she must make in order to find the truth. There’s no pretense that she’s Sherlock Holmes in skirts – she utilizes her particular skills (observation, good relations with the servants, and a knack for knowing what questions to ask combined with a disregard for unwritten rules that would prevent some of said questions), and gets herself into jams, and doggedly unravels the mystery.

I enjoyed the format, partially epistolary as Dido writes to her sister with news and asking for counsel; the book is entirely from her point of view, and these segments of her first-person voice deepen the picture.

I think the only problem I really have with the story is the love that begins to bloom for Dido. Besides the simple fact that it’s kind of nice to have a mostly-un-angst-ridden spinster as the main character (doesn’t everyone like to read characters they can easily identify with now and then?), the object of her affection, Mr. Lomax, is … inappropriate. His station is acceptable, I believe – but the problem I see with him is one that would be valid today: his son goes through money like water, and he takes very seriously the duty of repaying the son’s debts. It’s another indication of his honor – but it’s also not really a situation likely to change. As long as Father steps forward to take care of his debts, how likely is the son to stop racking them up? However “on the shelf” Dido may feel (and in fact, in her society, be), however much she might like Mr. Lomax, the cold-blooded and practical must be considered: will her life be more or less precarious if she eventually marries this man? Yet at no point does the consideration really seem to trouble Dido. For someone as eminently sensible as she seems, this felt like a wrong step.

Overall, I liked it very much, and I’m looking forward to the series. The mystery was not beyond the capabilities of someone like Dido; her motivations for involving herself didn’t tax my willing suspension of disbelief; I’ll have to deal with the keeps-tripping-over-murder-victims aspect of the cozy series further down the road. I liked Dido and the to-the-point letters from her sister, and the language in general. It’s a keeper.

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