Paul Spalding-Mulcock, Features Writer
'Mother Doesn't Do Maternal': The Smart Woman's Guide To Murder By Victoria Dowd
‘It is a very dangerous thing to know one’s friends’, so Oscar Wilde tells us in his The Remarkable Rocket
. P.G. Wodehouse says, ‘There is no surer foundation for a beautiful friendship than a mutual taste in literature’. Let us add Agatha Christie herself to these sagacious musings. She says, ‘Ah, but my dear sir, the why must never be obvious. That is the whole point’. Debut novelist Victoria Dowd has taken these venerable truths and woven them together to create The Smart Woman’s Guide to Murder
. Ostensibly a classic country house murder mystery, Dowd has given this musty genre a darkly comic twist, splicing time-honoured literary conventions with Gothic resonance, psychological intrigue and a carefully modulated meditation upon the nature of grief itself. It’s a novel that is sure to delight fans of the classic whodunnit, whilst also winning the praise of those with a penchant for fine writing, acidly funny dialogue and first-class character rendition. For me, an impressive debut and a thoroughly enjoyable, multi-hued romp through a much-loved subgenre of the crime novel.
Dowd sets the murderous action in snowbound Ambergris Towers, an isolated country mansion gentling going to seed whilst exuding an air of faded opulence, malevolence and closely guarded intrigue. The innocuous pretext for the gathering of our viperous protagonists is a meeting of a book club more interested in brandy than books. Ursula is our first-person unreliable narrator, the psychologically wounded daughter of Aunt Agatha-esque Pandora. Completing this motley assortment of frenemies are Pandora’s sister Charlotte, her sycophantic best friend Mirabelle and Joy, known satirically to all as ‘less’. Bringing up the rear we have Bridget and her anthropomorphised pampered pooch, Mr Bojangles, with the Angels serving as obsequious, if deliciously brittle Butler and Housekeeper respectively. The novel’s other two characters are the house itself and the beautiful, but oppressive snow surrounding its once grand environs.
Eschewing the sin of revealing the plot in any detail, let’s just say that Dowd gives us a classic whodunnit formula as the body count escalates, ratcheting up the tension via a meticulously calibrated set of events which threaten to end the lives of our fear stalked house guests. Survival becomes a conjoined attempt to unmask the killer in their midst, a task made all the more hazardous and comical given that enmity, mutual distrust and self-preservation are the frail strands from which the characters attempt to weave deductive collaboration. Our mentally fragile narrator, haunted by the inner demons of personal loss and inadequacy, attempts to both describe and resolve her life-threatening plight.
Each chapter leads with an aphoristic ‘rule’ to be applied in such circumstances and together these form the colourful ‘guide’ mentioned in the book’s title. On the surface, a perfectly traditional rendering of a genre forever associated with Agatha Christie and her ilk; however, Lady Mallowan, great as she was and rightly known as ‘the first lady of crime’, though undoubtedly respected by our author, is not given blind homage. Dowd has done something rather special with her novel. She has melded an exquisite appreciation of Christie’s canon, respecting its provenance and potency, with her own take on this almost sacrosanct genre. The result is something coruscating, chilly and irresistibly amusing despite the presence of a killer on the loose!
So, I hear you ask, what has Dowd done to a genre that even T.S. Eliot once considered studying and remains so popular that a group of venerated academics celebrated the 125th anniversary of Christie’s birth, by attempting to discover her formula? The answer is to come up with her own.
Dowd is a lawyer by training and earned her keep, before turning to writing, as a criminal defence barrister. Her writing also suggests that in addition to possessing a perspicacious mind with an assiduous eye for detail, she is steeped in a love of fine literature, particularly that reminiscent of M.R. James, not to mention the Brontë’s and the luminaries of the Gothic fiction canon. Drawing upon this fecund background, Dowd has not altered the craft of the murder mystery writer but embellished it with a set of literary devices and thematic strains designed to animate not denigrate the genre.
In addition to a finely executed, suspenseful plot which hums along with vibrant vim, Dowd also uses the novel to explore themes generally to be found in far more esteemed ‘serious’ genres. Our author confronts us not just with murder, but with death itself. Ursula and indeed the outwardly impregnable Pandora are both wresting with grief’s invidious tentacles, whilst also trying to understand one another as mother and daughter. Personal identity, moral ambiguity and psychological trauma are placed under the metaphorical microscope, as is the nature of friendship, duplicity, rapacity and vengeance. Even the nature of maternal love is examined through the prism of Ursula’s fractured mind. These themes do not ride conspicuously alongside our hunt for the killer but fold themselves into the very process of discovery itself. This blending of humanistic truth with gripping plot is quite marvellous!
Dowd also understands the power of atmosphere to ignite a weak flame of amusement into a bonfire of entertainment. Her prose at times belongs more in a venerated classic nineteenth century novel than a contemporary murder mystery. She gives us similes and metaphors which stop short of becoming hyperbolic fancies. Imagery, sumptuous descriptive language and tone are all used to immerse us in the nefarious confines of Ambergris Towers with its oak-panelled rooms and open fires: ‘Mirabelle stood up suddenly and poked at the fire again, as if at a raw nerve, causing sparks to stir up as the wood split and fell. The fire had been our constant companion with its biting, sharp scent filling every breath until the texture of the air itself was as dry as a spent match’.
Another truth well understood by Dowd is the power of laughter to heighten fear’s crescendo. The dialogue between her superbly well drawn characters evokes measured comparison with Oscar Wilde’s Lord Henry. I found myself sensing the presence of Wodehouse lurking mischievously in the novel’s shadows, gently tittering to himself at the social comedy clumsily unfolding around him. The spitefulness of the characters to one another is portrayed deliciously, their bitter jibes as lacerating as they are insightful. Dowd creates a climate of oppressed threat, suffuses this with quasi-poetic description and treats us to witty exchanges as funny as the murders themselves are gruesome. In laughing, we feel momentary respite, yet the killer remains ever present.
By way of flaws, the novel loses some of its narratorial energy as Ursula succumbs to the stress of both her inner and outer life. Bridget does not measure up to the authorial bar set by the depiction of our other characters. Even accepting that ‘nothing is as it seems’, Bridget’s character vacillation is for me a tad awkward to digest. Whilst I celebrate Dowd’s descriptive eloquence, the use of snow as both a metaphor and image edges towards wearisome. None of these observations dilute the novel’s intrigue, visceral force or potency; they are perhaps unkind snipes worthy of Pandora, rather than meaningful complaints.
So, a novel which demonstrates authorial talent almost certain to see our newcomer enjoy an ever-expanding fan base. A sequel to this book is due out in February of 2021 and a third book is in the pipeline. I can honesty say that this knowledge both excites and delights me. The Smart Woman’s Guide To Murder
may not become a classic, but it is a pure joy.
The Smart Woman’s Guide to Murder
is published by Joffe Books