Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. For many readers, there’s nothing quite like the English ‘country house’ mystery. Of course these days, people don’t generally live the way they did during the Golden Age years of crime writing. So modern-day ‘country house’ mysteries have to have a more contemporary feel to them if they’re going to be realistic. Let’s take a look today at how that’s accomplished. Let’s turn the spotlight on Hannah Dennison’s Murder at Honeychurch Hall.
Katherine ‘Kat’ Stanford is the star of a TV series Fakes & Treasures, but has decided to quit the show and get out of the public eye and away from media scrutiny of everything she does. Her plan is to go into the antique business with her mother Iris, who’s starting life over again after being widowed. But a telephone call from Iris changes everything.
Iris tells Kat that she’s decided not to go into business and instead, has bought the carriage house on the estate of Honeychurch Hall in Little Dipperton, Devon. Kat’s shocked at this sudden change of plans and concerned about her mother. So she drives to Devon to find out for herself whether her mother’s all right. When she gets there she finds that the carriage house is in sad need of repairs, and that her mother has broken one of her hands in a car accident. So she decides to stay and look after things until her mother’s hand is healed.
Soon enough, Kat gets to know some of the locals. First, there’s the rather eccentric Honeychurch family itself. Currently headed by the very unusual Lady Edith, the Honeychurches have, as many ‘country families’ do, a long history. At the moment, Lady Edith and her son Rupert live in Honeychurch Hall with Rupert’s wife Lavinia and their son Harry. There’s also the butler Cropper and the housekeeper Vera Pugsley, as well as Harry’s Russian nanny Gayla Tarasova. There are other local residents too.
Then, some strange things begin happening. For one thing, Kat discovers that someone is sabotaging her mother’s attempts to settle into her new home. And then there’s the matter of a unique and valuable antique snuff box – one of a collection belonging to Lady Edith – that’s stolen. Then, Gayla disappears. Not long afterwards, Vera Pugsley is found dead.
Cropper’s grandson DI Shawn Cropper investigates the disappearance and murder. But Kat’s worried about Iris, so she asks her own questions. And the more she discovers, the more she learns how little she really knows about her mother. Bit by bit, and each in a different way, Kat and Shawn work to find out what really happened to Gayla and who killed Vera and why. It turns out that the history of the Honeychurch family and Honeychurch Hall plays an important role in the case.
One of the important elements in this novel is the setting. Honeychurch Hall is a traditional large country estate that’s partly maintained, partly sold off, and full of history. Since Little Dipperton is not exactly a bustling metropolis, the novel also has a sense of small town ‘country’ life. Everyone knows everyone, and the history of all of the local families is common property. People such as Kat Stanford are regarded as ‘outsiders,’ so it takes a bit of time for her to get to know that history.
Along with the setting, there are several characters who play important roles in the novel. First of course are Kat and Iris. Kat, from whose point of view the story is told, is at a bit of a crossroads in her life. She’s tired of constantly being the target of the media, and eager for the change that going full-time into the antiques business offers. She’s in a relationship with David Wynne, who’s married, and getting a little tired of waiting for him to sort out his life. And yet, you couldn’t really call her self-pitying. Readers who dislike self-obsessed, heavy-drinking sleuths will be pleased. Iris isn’t particularly self-pitying either. She’s grieving the loss of her husband (and Kat’s father) Frank, but moving on with her life. One of the sub-plots of this novel is the way Kat and Iris have to re-negotiate their relationship. Iris has to accept the fact that Kat is very much her own person. For her part, Kat learns all kinds of things about her mother that she never knew. So she has to change her conception of her mother.
That said though, this isn’t a ‘family drama.’ The mystery itself – who killed Vera and what happened to Gayla – is the main plot point of the novel. And Kat and Shawn find out the truth in a plausible way. There’s an undercurrent of suspense too as it becomes clear that someone local is not what it seems on the surface.
The novel isn’t a bleak, dark read though. There is plenty of wit, both in the characters’ personalities and in some events that happen. For instance, several exchanges between Kat and her mother are full of the frustration – and humour – of real life interactions between adult children and their parents. And some of the characters are just eccentric enough to add wit to the story. For instance, the youngest Honeychurch – Harry – is obsessed with a WWI hero named James ‘Biggles’ Bigglesworth. He spends quite a lot of time living out what he sees as his hero’s life, and some of the scenes involving him are funny. Then there’s the sort of ‘culture clash’ as Kat makes the adjustment from London life to the country.
Murder at Honeychurch Hall is a ‘country’ house’ mystery with all of the trappings of the modern age (including Google and GPS navigation). It connects the past history of the place and some of the characters with the present mystery, and features a TV presenter who had no idea what she was getting into when she decided to step in and help her mother. But what’s your view? Have you read Murder at Honeychurch Hall? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 6 October/Tuesday 7 October – Ice Run – Steve Hamilton
Monday 13 October/Tuesday 14 October – Bitter River – Julia Keller