Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. St. David’s Day has come and gone for this year, but it’s never a bad time for a literary visit to Wales. Let’s make one today, and turn the spotlight on Elizabeth J. Duncan’s The Cold Light of Mourning, the first of her Penny Brannnigan series.
Brannigan is a widow, originally from Nova Scotia, who immigrated to the small Welsh town of Llanelen almost twenty-five years ago, and hasn’t regretted her decision. Now in her early fifties, she’s the proprietor of the Happy Hands Nail Care shop, and lives in a flat right above her business.
As the novel begins, Brannigan is mourning the recent death of her good friend, Emma Teasdale, a retired local teacher. It’s not spoiling the story to say that this death isn’t a murder. Still, Brannigan is grieving, and she’s involved in the funeral, in a tangential way; she’s doing her friend’s nails one last time.
Along with this, Brannigan has a bridal party booked for complete manicures. Emyr Gruffydd, son of a wealthy local family, is marrying a London bride, Meg Wynne Thompson. It’s to be a major event, with no expense spared. The bride and her attendants arrive in Llanelen and settle into the local inn. They keep their manicure appointments, and Brannigan doesn’t think much more about it, as she hasn’t been invited to the wedding.
But the wedding doesn’t go as planned. On the morning of the big day, Meg Wynne comes into the shop for her manicure, and then leaves when her nails are done. No-one sees her after that time. At first, everyone thinks that it’s a case of a bride getting the last-minute jitters and taking off. But no-one’s able to reach her, and she doesn’t contact anyone. When more time goes by with no word from Meg Wynne, the police are called in, in the forms of DCI Gareth Davies, and DS Bethan Morgan.
Davies and Morgan trace the bride’s movements, and soon discover that the last person known to have seen her was Brannigan. And she can’t be much help, because she really didn’t know Meg Wynne, and the young woman didn’t mention having any particular plans. Still, she can’t help but be curious.
She gets even more drawn into the case when Meg Wynne turns up dead. Now, Davies and Morgan re-trace their steps, this time with an eye to catching a killer, and Brannigan gets involved. Little by little, she and the police, each in a different way, follow the trail. And the closer Brannigan gets to the truth, the more dangerous things get for her. After all, as Davies tells her, this is a person who’s killed, and who won’t shy away from doing it again.
And there are several suspects, too. For one thing, the victim’s father is an abusive drunk, and could have killed her (although he claims innocence). She’s alienated plenty of other people, too. And then there’s the matter of the bridegroom. He claims to be as upset as anyone at her disappearance, and her death is hard on him and his father. But who knows what goes on with even the most loving couple? In the end, Brannigan and the police get to the truth.
This novel takes place in small-town Wales, and Duncan gives the reader a sense of that setting. Everyone knows everyone, for the most part, and there’s plenty of gossip and history in the town. Readers who’ve been to North Wales, and/or have read books about it, will find the physical beauty, the setting, and the context familiar.
Brannigan is an amateur sleuth (although she knows something about procedure, as her husband was a copper). So, she can’t officially question witnesses and suspects, and there’s information to which she’s not privy. Readers who dislike it when amateur sleuths ‘act like the police’ will be pleased to know that that doesn’t really happen here. There are a few times where Brannigan and her new business partner, Vicoria Hopkirk, follow suspects and so on. And sometimes they get into trouble because of it. But, in the main, they let the police do the official work.
That doesn’t mean Brannigan doesn’t talk about the case with the police, though. As she’s involved anyway, she gets to know both Davies and Morgan, especially Davies. She has her own theories of the investigation, which she shares with him. Gradually, the two form a relationship. Readers who dislike any form of romance in their crime novels will notice this. But the romance goes very slowly (both are widowed, but are content with their lives, and neither is in a great hurry to find someone new). And it’s not a central plot point.
The story takes different points of view, including Davies’, Morgan’s and Brannigan’s (all third person, past tense). Readers who prefer only one perspective will notice this. That said, though, it’s always clear whose point of view is being shared at any one time.
Readers who like stories in which the guilty party is apprehended and brought to justice will be pleased to know that that happens here. It certainly doesn’t make everything all right again. And there is real sadness and some darkness in the story. But this isn’t a noir sort of story where everything falls apart permanently.
In keeping with that, there’s not much violence in the story, although Duncan doesn’t make light of the fact that murder – any murder – is horrible. Nor is there much other explicitness. Reader who prefer their stories to be low on gore and explicit sex will appreciate this.
The Cold Light of Mourning is the story of what happens in a small Welsh town when a murder takes place there, even if it’s not the murder of a local person. It’s got a distinctive, contemporary setting, and characters you might imagine living there. And it features an amateur sleuth who has come to love her adoptive home. But what’s your view? Have you read The Cold Light of Mourning? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 13 March/Tuesday, 14 March – L.A. Confidential – James Ellroy
Monday, 20 March/Tuesday, 21 March – We Have Always Lived in the Castle – Shirley Jackson
Monday, 27 March/Tuesday 28 March – Death of an Old Goat – Robert Barnard