My contribution for the S round of the Crime Fiction Alphabet is Jennifer Rowe’s Stranglehold. Like most of the six novels featuring Verity Birdwood it’s an Agatha Christie inspired variation on the country house mystery. It tells the story of Max Tully; a wealthy radio host in Sydney who throws a big party for his 70th birthday at which he makes some surprising announcements. Afterwards he starts receiving nasty anonymous letters and invites Verity, a private detective as well as the daughter of his old friend and current boss, to ‘Third Wish’, his opulent cliff top house overlooking the sea. Also staying at the house are his adult children, his estranged third wife and his new fiancée. When one of them is murdered Verity must determine whether the culprit is one of the guests or a nearby neighbour.
I admit I am something of a sucker for these slightly old-fashioned whodunits of cleverly constructed plots and groups of people with mysterious secrets. In Stranglehold Max Tully has some secrets from his childhood that influence his behaviour decades later and all the members of his household have secret desires or grudges or fears that come into play at some point in the story. The story is more believable than many in the genre for several reasons including the facts that the body count stops at one and the family relationships are very realistically depicted.
I really enjoy Verity as a character. Although an amateur sleuth turned professional detective she’s really not at the ‘cosy’ end of the scale being a somewhat unemotional person who thinks a crime through in her head in a way that is reminiscent of M. Hercule Poirot using his little grey cells. However she’s also quite funny, if a little acerbic, and is smart enough to get away with her superior attitude.
Jennifer Rowe was the first Australian writer of crime fiction that I discovered (with 1988’s Grim Pickings) and I always wish she had written more than her eight books. However, under her real name of Emily Rodda she’s been a little busy publishing around 50 books for children so I guess I have to cut her a little slack.
I reviewed another of Jennifer Rowe’s Verity Birdwood country house mysteries, The Makeover Murders, back in 2008
Title: The Makeover Murders
Author: Jennifer Rowe
Publisher: Bantam Books (1993)
In yet another take on the country house mystery ABC TV researcher and all around curmudgeon Verity Birdwood is sent to an up market beauty spa for a fortnight and must somehow fit in with the odd assortment of women who are paying a fortune for the ultimate makeover. As the spa, in Sydney’s hinterland, is inundated by flooding rains relationships between guests and staff at the spa reach breaking point and murder becomes a viable option for someone.
I think I read all the Verity Birdwood books when they were first published but I had forgotten until this year, when I started re-reading them, just how good the plots are. About the only thing you can rely on is that they won’t work out as you predict because Rowe is very good at red herrings. The fact that this one is set in an area I lived in for several years made it that much more enjoyable as I too have survived several Hawkesbury River floods and, although my captivity was nver as action-packed as in this house, I could well believe the sense of isolation and growing desperation that mother nature can generate.
And I love Verity Birdwood (or Birdy as she likes to be called). She’s smart and cranky and generally believable because she doesn’t always get it right first time. But there are always loads of other great characters in Rowe’s books too and this is no exception. The employees and paying guests of Deepende Spa are a curious mix of people that you want to read about to find out what makes them all tick and which one of them has resorted to murder to solve their problems. As is often the case with cosy mysteries Birdy has a close relationship with a police detective and in this book that relationship is a bit strained as Dan Toby struggles to deal with the made-over Birdy. It adds a nice complexity to the story.
All in all this was a satisfying read and a great example of how a familar structure such as the country house mystery can still be given new and interesting life by a good author.
My rating 4/5