Written by Rebecca Tope — Fans of cosy crime fiction will probably already be familiar with the name of Rebecca Tope, but you needn’t feel you are missing out if this – the tenth book – is in fact your first encounter with the Cotswold mystery series. Each stands well enough on its own, although obviously the main characters evolve and change.
The novels feature Thea Osborne, a middle-aged house-sitter with a proclivity for becoming involved in murderous mysteries in the picturesque, quintessentially English villages of the Cotswolds. This is familiar ground for Midsomer Murders aficionados and, indeed, in both series you will find a high body count, little gore, humour, plenty of village gossip, quirky pubs and amber-coloured cottages scattered around a church.
Since her husband’s death, Thea and her well-behaved spaniel Hepzie have been moving from one house-sitting assignment to the next. Dead bodies nearly always show up in her wake and this latest assignment proves no exception. Thea is slightly worried about protecting the ornament-filled house of scatter-brained schoolteacher Yvonne Parker. An over-familiar, bossy neighbour, a hornet’s nest in the attic and a destructive little boy beheading all the flowers in the garden all contribute to making her feel unwelcome in the isolated village of Snowshill.
The very next day, after complaining about the boy to his mother, Thea finds him strangled just outside the cottage. Although he was notoriously unpopular throughout the village, suspicion instantly falls upon his long-suffering single mother, Gudrun. Gudrun has made no effort to endear herself to the community. A rebel at heart, she has always refused to join in local activities, or even to tell anyone the name of the boy’s father. Thea has some sympathy for Gudrun’s outsider status and cannot believe she is guilty, so, as usual, she gets involved in solving the mystery, cajoling herself into people’s confidence and running her own informal investigation alongside the police. What is the connection between this death and the sudden disappearance of Yvonne Parker? Why is Yvonne’s estranged husband calling Thea to ask for her whereabouts, and why is their conversation suddenly cut short? Above all, is it fair to involve her good friend and fellow mystery-lover Drew Slocombe into the process, when he should be at his wife’s bedside in hospital, watching her slowly slip away into permanent unconsciousness?
The author does a good job of evoking the claustrophobic atmosphere and petty rivalries lingering just below the idyllic surface in small villages. She is also a keen observer of nature and animals, and the rural setting is lovingly described. Thea herself is a complex character. Although she is an attractive widow in her 40s, there is something spinsterish about her, something very Miss Marple-like. By turns assertive and reserved, inquisitive yet trying not to be judgmental or interfering, she is deeply conflicted, struggling to communicate with her daughter or her sister, and unsure of her own feelings for Drew. Like the villages she lives in, Thea seems to be the essence of Englishness. Or perhaps of a particular, rather old-fashioned type of English womanhood: shy yet determined, self-conscious and apologetic, hesitant and fearful with strangers, yet with a strong will and a sense of irony underneath it all.
However, readers who have not followed the development of Thea’s character in other books in the series may find it difficult to empathise with her – she sometimes seems inexplicably cold and remote, even to her nearest and dearest. I also felt that the motivation of some of the other characters was unclear at times, and that their reactions rather stretched belief.
After reading several harrowing books in quick succession, I found this this a lovely change of pace: suspense without the brutality. Clearly, there is still room in all our hearts for the amateur detective and the country village settings. Malice in the Cotswolds has been out for a year on Kindle and as a hardback, and the paperback is released later this month.
Allison & Busby
CFL Rating: 3 Stars