Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. There’s something about the insular small village that lends itself very effectively to a crime novel. Whether the author chooses a psychological focus or a whodunit focus (or some combination), the small village can add real context to a novel. Let’s take a look at how that works today, and turn the spotlight on Aline Templeton’s Last Act of All, a standalone (so far as I’m aware) and not part of her DI Fleming series.
As the story begins, Helena Radley has just been released from prison for the killing of her first husband, soap opera star Neville Fielding. She and her new husband, Edward Radley, return to the village of Radensfield where they live, and she tries to start over, with Edward only too eager to put the whole thing behind them.
The novel then goes back to tell the story of what happened to Neville. As Part Two begins, Neville, Helena and their daughter Stephanie move to Radnesfield on Neville’s impulse. He buys Radnesfield House, and all three settle in as newcomers in a very old, tightly-knit community, where one’s an outsider even after living in a place for decades.
Neville’s television alter ego is Harry Bradman, and as time has gone on, it’s been harder and harder to tell where Neville leaves off and Harry begins. His growing mental instability causes his marriage to fall apart, and alienates his daughter. It also causes plenty of trouble in Radnesfield. For one thing, Neville can’t keep away from other men’s wives. For another, he tires of his lovers quickly, so there are several broken-hearted women in town. Finally, Helena divorces him.
After a time, she marries Edward Radley and life settles down again uneasily. Then, Neville decides to sell Radnesfield House to a developer that wants to create a community of upmarket homes. In the process, several people in the village will lose a lot. All of this comes to the surface one night when some of the villagers come to Radnesfield House to protest.
The next day, Neville is murdered. Inspector Joe Coppins and Sergeant Frances Howarth investigate, and it’s not long before they settle on Helena as the most likely suspect. She certainly had motive, and there is a great deal of circumstantial evidence against her. With no other compelling leads, there’s no choice but to charge her. She’s found guilty and sent to prison, although the sentence is light, since Neville was abusive.
Frances Howarth hasn’t been completely sure of Helena’s guilt since the beginning of the case. Now, she wants to re-open the investigation and try to clear Helena’s name. In part it’s out of a sense of guilt for putting the wrong person in prison. In part it’s embarrassment at getting it wrong. But it’s also a sense of wanting to find out the truth. At first, Helena is dead-set against it, as she doesn’t want to rake everything up again. But slowly, she begins to see that she could be in danger; she knows she is innocent, and so does the real killer. Howarth continues to ask questions and look into the matter again. Then there’s another murder. And soon, it’s clear that there’s something more going on here than just an abused wife finally freeing herself of her abuser.
One of the most important elements of this novel is its village-with-secrets atmosphere. This is a claustrophobic setting in that way. Everyone knows everyone, and the people who ‘count’ – those who’ve always lived in Radnesfield – know things that they aren’t telling. So one of Howarth’s tasks is to convince people to talk. She’s very, very good at that, but you might say she meets her match in this small community.
Because it’s a small village with a long history, there’s a lot of background, which plays a part in what happens in the novel. There are things that everybody in the village knows, but that people who aren’t ‘one of us’ don’t know. The small-town setting also means that there are a lot of interactions and relationships among the villagers. So the villagers tend to stand up for one another. It’s a ‘we’ll take care of our own problems’ sort of a place, and that impacts the story as well.
The story is told (in past tense) from the point of view of several of the characters, including Helena Fielding Radley, Frances Howarth, Neville Fielding, and several of the villagers. Templeton makes it clear whose point of view is being shared (at least for me). Still, readers who prefer only one point of view will notice this. I can say, too, without spoiling the story, that following the different points of view is very helpful in working out the network of relationships and reactions to the events in the novel.
The mystery itself – who killed Neville Fielding, who committed the other murder, and why – is as much psychological as it is anything else. That said, though, this isn’t a ‘crazed serial killer who enjoys murder’ sort of a novel.
Through all of this moves Sergeant Frances Howarth. She’s single, and still lives with her ageing mother Poppy, who cannot accept her daughter’s choice of career. She’s a talented pianist, to whom music is very important. In fact, she uses musical metaphors to define the characters of the people she meets in this case. And for her, the music that personifies Radnesfield is dark, threatening and brooding.
She and her boss, Joe Coppins, have an interesting relationship. On the one hand, he gets understandably upset with her for digging up this case again and making the department look bad. On the other, he admits that she’s right, and he sees that she’s trying to do the right thing. Coppins is still getting used to working with a woman (the novel was published in 1995), and sometimes makes jokes about her ‘feminine intuition.’ But underneath, they respect each other. Readers who are tired of serious conflict between police leaders and their staff will appreciate this.
Last Act of All is a traditional-style mystery with a psychological tone. It’s set in a claustrophobic, insular village, and features a detective who’s trying to pierce the ‘wall of silence’ to find out the truth about this case. But what’s your view? Have you read Last Act of All? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 12 September/Tuesday, 13 September – Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog – Boris Akunin
Monday, 19 September/Tuesday, 20 September – In the Bleak Midwinter – Julia Spencer Fleming
Monday, 26 September/Tuesday, 27 September – Happiness is Easy – Edney Silvestre