The Sans Pareil Mystery – Karen Charlton

I made 126 notes and highlights on this book in Kindle. That’s either an excellent sign … or a really, really bad one. I sincerely wish I had paid more attention to the author’s and main character’s names before requesting this from Netgalley, because I read a free novella by Charlton featuring Detective Lavender some time ago. I loathed it. I didn’t believe a word of it, and I never would have chosen another in the series; it was with a sinking feeling that I began to recognize all the things I disliked in the writing and characterization, and with a sigh that I decided to keep reading. I honestly don’t know why I bothered to finish; duty, I suppose. Willingness to give a second chance. That’ll teach me.

Positive things … positive things … Oh! I apparently learned why a theatre green room is (was) a green room: “the soft green interior walls, which according to tradition, helped to rest the cast’s eyes after the glare of candlelight on the stage.”

And … um … nope. That’s it.

The hero of the book is Steven Lavender, a young rising star detective whose youth and whatnot I had to keep reminding myself of; he is written as a stuffy and irritating pedant. It was jarring to read that his age was very early thirties. He is cardboard.

He is clandestinely seeing a Spanish refugee who is feisty and spicy and all sorts of other clichés. The way she was written, I didn’t trust her as far as I could throw her (which, with her being a fictional character and all, isn’t far), and I found myself increasingly uncomfortable with the increasingly romance-novel relationship between the two of them. I’ll come back to that. This woman hides part of her past from Lavender until the bitter end, and it’s one of the silliest examples of a silly trope I’ve ever seen. The part she wants to hide is not what I found detestable; she’s worried about the fact that she shot a couple of French soldiers who would like as not have killed and/or raped her. I felt she ought to be more ashamed of the fact that she abandoned a couple of elderly servants who fought for her. And ger husband “‘never forgave me for abandoning his parents.’” My comment: “Good for him.” At several points she talks about returning to Spain; whether this was honest or something meant to elicit a reaction is debatable. She has her son in an expensive school, and seems to only suddenly have the realization that she’ll have to pay the fees before too long, which will be a challenge without any income. She settles in what she sees as graceful poverty into a hovel, and seems not to realize that cleaning – or having her servant clean – the place might make it less of a hovel; it’s described as being cobwebby. “…She preferred to believe that she lived in simplicity rather than squalor.” I believe that would be called “delusional”.

The third wheel in the book is Constable Woods, of a mounted police unit, whom Lavender keeps co-opting for his own investigations, duties be damned. Did London have an equestrian police force in this period? It’s a bit irrelevant, really, since Woods never does his job as part of said. A superior gripes about it, but no changes are made. Woods is all of the clichés of 19th century police constablehood, rather jolly and earthy, a combination of unschooled ignorance and salt of the earth wisdom. Of course Lavender finds him indispensible. The narrative tells us that the two of them are besties – another thing I could not believe in.

It is funny, though, that mounted cop thing. Woods and Lavender spend a fair amount of the book galloping hither and yon across London, and it seemed strange. “I propose that we saddle up and go straight to Wandsworth”, says Lavender, and it struck me that I never see people riding about the streets of nineteenth century London; they always take a cab. It’s a symptom of my dislike of the book that I didn’t believe in it. With another author I might never have questioned the hero hopping on a horse and heading off.

The writing … Oh, I don’t know. The nuts and bolts were serviceable. But … Faced with a corpse that shows no signs of violence, Woods proclaims, ‘It must have been poison …There’s no other way. That’s how the bastards murdered her.’ What about suffocation?

Someone scampers about in too-large shoes, and is all uncomfortable; however, the person she swapped shoes with never seems to complain about walking in shoes two sizes too small. I’ve worn shoes that were about half a size too small (“They’ll stretch”), and it was excruciating after about ten minutes.

As so often happens, Captain Obvious pays a visit or two: “The room had been ransacked: drawers pulled out, papers thrown everywhere and the wardrobe emptied. It is possible that whoever broke in was looking for something.” Ya think?

Ah, and that romance. One note I made, at the mention of “Magdalena’s curvaceous body”, was “like the corpse”, which took me a moment to decipher. Then I remembered: the murder victim was a lovely young woman, whose curvaceous body our intrepid heroes made note of, rather ashamedly. The language of rhe “romantic” scenes was nauseating – purple, overheated, out of character, out of place. Unbelievable.

Part of the impenetrability of the book is the repetition.
location 760-760: ‘Did she have a sweetheart, or a lover?’ Lavender asked.
location 764-764: ‘Did she have a sweetheart, or a lover?’ Lavender asked again.
Fine, he had to repeat the question. Did it have to be completely identical?

The setting of the theatre – one thing which was a draw for me; I love other mysteries based around the theatre – was, for this author, an odd excuse to over-exercise the word “strutting”. I don’t know if she has a fixation on “a poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage”, but good … grief. (Ow.)
Strutting across the stage in men’s clothing” and “famous for strutting across the stage in men’s clothing” and “wear a pair of breeches and strut across a stage” and so on. It’s absurd. Oh, look – there’s another one: “the actors and actresses strutted across the stage”. That’s pretty bad.

Everyone’s speech patterns feel off. Lavender reads like he’s supposed to be Sherlock Lite, socially inept in a clueless and puzzled manner. He’s irritating. The members of the working class who appear combine stereotypical dropped g’s and added h’s and so on with incredibly stilted passages. Like “Prostitutes wantonly ply their trade in the Close, outside on the street and inside the rooms.” A prostitute solicits Woods – “Martha and I can do you the beast with the two backs for an extra shillin’”… Wouldn’t that be three backs? Just sayin’. “You’re debauched – the bleedin’ lot of you!” Really??

And everyone seems to say “Good grief”. It’s enough to put one off Charlie Brown. Those who don’t exclaim “Good grief!” cry out “Gawd’s teeth!”

Someone exclaims something (not “good grief”, this time) in a whisper.

“Several red curls were now plastered to the side of her face with wet tears.” How? “…Wiped the greasy gravy from his mouth with the sodden handkerchief he had retrieved from Mrs Willoughby.” Ew. A major plot point is that someone is bald when he should have hair – even though last time I checked it’s not that unusual for a man to shave his head. (And if hair was a major clue, it ought to have been more prominently mentioned earlier.) The real evidence comes quite a bit later.

And, oh, the comma abuse. I kept reminding myself that this was an ARC, but the kind of comma misuse in this book is as much bad writing as lack of editing.

I said I would come back to the romance element, and I’m afraid that’s where I’m going now. As I think I’ve made pretty obvious, I didn’t like Lavender, and I found Magdalena shifty and too secretive to make a relationship with her palatable, even with someone I didn’t like. To make matters worse, the writing in the love scenes was purely nauseating.

‘Is that what I am to you, Stephen?’ she yelled. ‘A lewd squeeze in a darkened room? A bit of fun?’ The suggestion he makes more than halfway through the book certainly makes it seem rather that way. It was out of character, it was all kinds of inappropriate, and I was shocked at both the proposition and the fact that the author wrote it in. It made no sense in the circumstances.

Worst of all, I called a major plot element well before it was revealed. I’ve said a hundred times that if I can predict how a mystery is going to go – I, the worst guesser in the known universe, the anti-Holmes – then the author has done something terribly wrong. Then the whole thing devolves into the world’s dumbest ever spy novel … By which I mean the spies are the dumbest and the spy techniques are the dumbest and the top-secret data being fought for is the dumbest … It was only when someone evades the following dynamic duo of Lavender and Woods by the single most asinine maneuver I have ever had the misfortune to read that I started using profanity in my Kindle notes. Why did I give this two stars to start with? I guessed most of the book’s mystery, but this I can’t figure it out. I think I was trying to be nice. I think I’d do better to be honest.

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

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