Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. One of the challenges of creating an amateur sleuth is creating credible circumstances in which that person gets involved in investigating a crime. After all, amateur sleuths have no authority, and depending on their professional backgrounds, they don’t have experience at investigating. Still, there are plenty of credible amateur sleuths out there. Let’s take a look at one today, and turn the spotlight on Ilsa Evans’ Nefarious Doings, the first of her Nell Forrest novels.
Forrest is a newspaper columnist who lives with the two youngest of her five daughters in the small town of Majic, Victoria (even she makes fun of the town name, and there’s a story behind it). One day, she gets a visit from two police constables, who inform her that there’s been a fire at her mother’s home not far away. Forrest’s mother Lillian ‘Yen’ was rescued and will be fine, but there’s been damage to the house. What’s more, the body of a man was found in the garage.
Soon enough, the victim is identified as Dustin Craig, who lived next door. At first, his death looks like some sort of terrible accident. But it doesn’t take long to establish that he was murdered – dead before the fire was started. Now, the police begin to investigate the death thoroughly.
Yen can’t stay in her own home until the repairs to it are complete. So it’s agreed that she’ll stay with Nell and her at-home daughters, Lucy and Quinn. Against this somewhat chaotic background, Nell starts to try to find out the truth about Craig’s murder. There’s even a whiteboard in her living room where she, her sister Petra, and the other family members start to jot down their ideas for suspects.
And there are plenty of suspects. For one thing, Craig was abusive to his much younger wife, Beth, and to their daughters. He had also had his share of altercations with other people on the street. Unfortunately for Nell Forrest, that group includes her mother. In fact, Craig and Yen had had a loud argument on the very evening of his death, so that makes her quite a viable suspect. In fact, Yen herself insists that her name be added to the whiteboard, although she claims to be innocent. And, after all, why would she kill someone, leave the body in her own garage, and then start a fire? Nobody in the family wants to believe that Yen’s a killer, but it isn’t outside the realm of possibility. Still, Nell isn’t convinced, so she wants to clear her mother’s name.
Little by little, and each in a different way, Nell and the police start to put the pieces of the puzzle together. To do this, they have to untangle a complicated series of relationships among the people who live on the same road as Yen. And in the end, that network has a lot to do with the murder.
Because Nell is an amateur sleuth, she doesn’t have the force of law behind her. But she does know a lot of the people involved. In some cases, she’s known them for years. So the various witnesses and suspects don’t find it unusual or inappropriate that she’s talking to them about the investigation. Besides, they all know that it’s her mother whose house has been damaged. So it makes sense to the other people involved that she would ask questions. That said, though, readers who prefer police or PIs as sleuths will note that Nell is neither.
One of the important elements in the novel is the set of interactions among the people who live on and near Small Dairy Lane, where the crime occurred. It’s one of those cases where people know each other. It’s not quite as insular as some very small communities are, but Majic, and in particular Small Dairy Road, is the sort of place where people do know each other’s business. Readers who enjoy ‘murder in a small community’ stories will appreciate this.
Another important element in the novel is the character of Nell Forrest, and the interactions she has with her family members. She’s recently divorced from her daughters’ father, and is just now getting ready to start life again. Although she has very mixed feelings, both about the divorce and about her ex, she doesn’t wallow. She’s far too busy for that. Nell’s entered middle age, and is getting more and more comfortable in her own skin, as the saying goes. She’s hardly perfect – just ask her children. But she’s bright, quick-thinking, and observant.
Nell also has solid relationships with her daughters. Readers who are tired of badly dysfunctional families will appreciate that aspect of the novel. They argue, forget things, are sometimes inconsiderate, bait each other, and so on. But there is a strong bond among them. There’s also a strong bond between Nell and her sister Petra. Both of them get quite exasperated with their mother, who in turn gets her fill of them. But again, there’s an underlying closeness among them.
There is wit in the novel. For instance, in one scene, Nell is preparing a meal. She and her daughter Lucy are in the kitchen, having a conversation about Lucy’s decision to leave university and work, instead of finishing her degree:
‘I was just taking time out, working out what I wanted to do. Trying to fi –’
I held up my hand to stop her, which worked because it was also the hand holding the knife. ‘If you say ‘find yourself,’ I swear to god I’m going to blindfold you, drop you in the middle of the desert, and then see how you really go about finding yourself.’’
There are other funny scenes, too.
That said though, this is not really what you’d call a light, cosy sort of mystery. The story behind the murders is an unhappy one. Knowing the truth doesn’t make that go away. And there are other ways, too, in which the novel takes an edgier tone than many cosies do. Readers who prefer ‘G-rated’ cosies will want to be aware that this isn’t one of them.
Nefarious Doings is the story of a murder and its impact on the people who live on a quiet street in a quiet town. It features a network of relationships among those people, and introduces a distinctly Australian sleuth who has a unique, sometimes witty, way of looking at life. But what’s your view? Have you read Nefarious Doings? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 9 May/Tuesday 10 May – Three Little Pigs – Apostolos Doxiadis
Monday 16 May/Tuesday 17 May – Terror in Taffeta – Marla Cooper
Monday 23 May/Tuesday 24 May – Burial of the Dead – Michael Hogan