Murder on Sea – A Whitstable Pearl Mystery by Julie Wassmer

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This modern mystery of murder and motives set in the coastal town of Whitstable features, as with the first in the series, Pearl Nolan. It is a success not because of brilliant plotting but because of the sense of community in which the crimes are committed. Whitstable is a town transformed by summer visitors, but in the winter season in which this book is set the populace is dominated by a variety of characters, all significant to the plot. There is more than one murder, but the police are low key, and there seems to be no interest from the press or media generally. This dangerous situation is a well worked out mystery, featuring rather engaging characters and some interesting observations on small town life. Set during the build up to Christmas, the small preoccupations of present buying and meal preparations sit rather oddly with the suspicion of death from unnatural causes.

Pearl is woman with a successful small restaurant and catering business who is well known in the community for her charitable and social efforts. She has also opened a detective agency, but seems strangely reluctant to do any actual detecting, even when presented with a ‘case’ by more than one recipient of poison pen cards. Pearl continues to fulfil her rounds of visiting her accountant, the elegant Diana, dealing with the new guest staying with her mother, and doing last minute present buying for her absent son, Charlie. In all her activities and especially the investigation of unfortunate deaths, she is shadowed and sometimes accompanied by the sad and fairly attractive senior policeman, Mike McGuire. He seems strangely uninvolved in the actual work of detection, much of which seems to end up with the unqualified Pearl and her extensive local knowledge. Pearl’s mother, the eccentric Dolly, is less of a dominant force in this book, and it does lack some of the colour of the first in the series.

This book achieves an interesting blend of depicting a small town life, a tentative romance and a non violent series of murders. It forms an interesting picture of life in a community where people know each other, and they behave like real characters. There are comic interludes, especially when Pearl ends up going to a beautician for eyebrow work, which becomes something of a running joke. I enjoy the leisurely unpacking of situations, the self -doubt that Pearl shows as she wonder about taking on the hunt for a killer, the familiar practices of a community in the Christmas season.  This is not a gory, bloody contemporary novel, but a gentle cosy mystery more in the style of Miss Marple than many modern mysteries or thrillers. It is unlikely in many respects, but this is probably one of its strengths as its fairly slow tempo gives a relaxing read, with red herrings, motives abounding, and most of all Whitstable in all seasons.

So we are enjoying that limbo between Christmas and New Year where some people are working, including NHS staff and some Vicars, whereas others are a little confused as to what to do next, with regular activities are resting. Today I went to see “A Matter of Life and Death” at a small cinema which was showing it on the big screen, together with a short but interesting talk about films of the 1930s and 1940s. As it is undoubtedly one of my favourite films, a good time was had!

The Whitstable Pearl Mystery by Julie Wassmer

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Occasionally I enjoy reading a book that will probably never be described as a classic, but is a really enjoyable light read, especially for the holiday season. This contemporary murder mystery is a loving evocation of the life and times of Whitstable, particularly at Oyster Festival time. I do not know Whitstable at all, being in the Midlands, but I feel I have learnt something of coastal towns, grateful for yet challenged by the yearly onslaught of visitors.

Pearl is a single mother whose beloved son, Charlie, for whom she has sacrificed a promising career in the Police, is now at Canterbury University. His relationship with his new girlfriend Tizzy adds to her feeling that she must find new activities to fill the gap his absence has caused. Pearl (yes, the name is one of the deliberate bits of humour that run throughout this book) already runs a successful oyster based café with her memorable and loveable mother, Dolly. Dolly has a ripe sense of humour and an extravagant love of life.

Polly, missing her police career, has set up a detective agency which is not exactly bringing in a huge clientele. Her first prospective client is an unattractive man, but everything is put into perspective when she discovers a body. Death in suspicious circumstances is followed by investigations both official and unofficial, as a friend’s background becomes convoluted and emotionally complex. Pearl finds herself becoming attracted by Chief Inspector Mike McGuire whose own grief is affecting his judgement and impartiality.  Other characters may or may not be significant to the mystery, but the lonely Ruby and the suspicious rich visitors begin to confuse the pictures being built up by Pearl and the reluctantly involved Mike.

There are lots of lovely pictures of the community in a small town, challenged by a mysterious death. All is not doom and gloom in this book, as Dolly creates confusion with her unusual dance classes and other high jinks. This is not a great literary book, and in particular there are inconsistencies of character and unlikely coincidence which make the outcome of the mysteries frustrating. Also, I found Pearl’s involvement a little unrealistic, given that her detective experience would have been limited.

This is an enjoyable read, which maintained my interest despite its unevenness. I am looking forward to reading the other two paperbacks I have tracked down, and hope to find out more about Whitstable and its inhabitants.

Meanwhile life in the Midlands continues busy as ever. A recent birthday for Northernvicar meant a huge treat for over sixty people on a steam hauled train followed by a fish and chip meal and party. No oysters though!

Another Little Christmas Murder – Lorna Nicholl Morgan

If you are in search of a cosy murder to read at this time of year, I would recommend Another Little Christmas Murder  by a woman, for a change, Lorna Nicholl Morgan. I picked it up on impulse, never having heard of this author, especially when I noticed it was published in 1947 and thus a genuine historical murder mystery, rather than vaguely set in the past.

Also refreshingly, this book’s main character is a woman, a business woman in her own right, who does not sit around waiting for a man to sort the situation out. For those of us who are nervous drivers or passengers at this time of year, Dilys Hughes rushes in where I would hesitate to venture in a little car in snow, the bleak Yorkshire moors. She gets stuck, but is rescued by a young man rejoicing in the name of Inigo Brown, who is en route to see his uncle in a snowbound family home of Wintry Wold. The welcome from a new, young aunt, Theresa, is almost as cold as the bedrooms in the house. Furthermore, there are several others there, equally stuck by reason of broken down vehicles and dubious servant type roles, if not alcohol consumption. The Uncle is not seen, but is very ill and needing nursing. Mysterious footsteps in the night lead Dilys to investigate, and what she discovers throws all that she has been told into doubt.

This is a Golden Age mystery in that is is a closed set of characters stuck in a large house with mysterious goings on.There is no central detective obvious from the start, and so everyone is suspect, and nothing is as it seems. There are many characters to keep in mind, and some are better drawn than others, but I liked Dilys and her determination to find out what is going on. Many, many cigarettes are consumed, alcohol taken, and there is some violence, but nothing gory or nightmare inducing. There are red herrings, a fresh air fiend, and lots of snow and car mending. There is a vehicle chase at the end, and knowing a little of the roads in the area I was suitably chilled. It is not great literature, and not a classic bound for tv adaptation, but a good winter (Christmas is not really mentioned, despite the title) mystery for an afternoon and evening’s consistently good read.

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