Written by Elizabeth J Duncan –- Mum, gran or great aunt, most families are blessed with a member who has a saying for every occasion, guaranteed to come up with such gems as ‘Look before you leap’, ‘Don’t put all your eggs in one basket’ and the frankly ridiculous ‘Never cast a clout ’til May is out’. I’d be surprised if the saying that inspired this book’s title is among those platitudes though. It’s a new one on me, but ‘Never Laugh as a hearse goes by – or you will be the next to die’ is quoted by a character. And sure enough, the foolish giggler is soon breathing his last.
Elizabeth J Duncan is a Canadian who lived in Britain for several years. Her series of books featuring Penny Brannigan – Never Laugh… is the fifth – are set in North Wales, in the fictional market town of Llanelen. They have proved popular with lovers of cosy crime, and on my first acquaintance with Penny I can see why.
Our heroine is a Canadian expat and is a partner in Llanelen Spa, where she is often to be found filing nails and applying polish to the fingertips of a wide range of clients. She is also a talented artist. But most of all, Penny likes to solve crimes, and whether by luck or design, crimes seem to land in her lap. Having a policeman as her latest squeeze probably helps the process along a bit, and I’m surprised that DCI Gareth Davies doesn’t get upset at having his girlfriend stick her pretty size fives into his investigations.
The story begins as Penny receives a puzzling voicemail. It’s been sent in error, but the man’s message sounds decidedly suspicious, as if he’s sorting out details for an assignation. At a conference at a library. But who can he be? And where is this mysterious conference? Most folk would dismiss the call and get on with their lives, but Penny is built of sterner stuff and wants to know more. And when she is invited to be guest speaker at a conference of local vicars held at the historic Gladstone’s Library – which is a real place, in Flintshire – she puts two and two together and is on the lookout for shenanigans.
Penny is joined at the event by Gareth, who is also booked to speak to conference delegates – but what neither of them has bargained for is a death at the dinner table. The Bishop’s secretary, Minty Russell, has a severe allergy to shellfish. She’s plumped for chicken, which seems safe enough, until she collapses, gasping for breath. There is no sign of the Epipen which she always carries in her handbag in case of a severe allergic reaction. The attack proves fatal, and the plot turns almost Agatha Christie when a second conference attendee is found dead in the library. The Rev Shipton was the very person who laughed at Minty’s hearse, so no surprise there except, perhaps, for him.
Gareth has two tricky murder investigation on his hands, and you can be sure that Penny will be there to help (or hinder) him. She is an interesting, if a little annoying character, somewhat in the mould of Miss Marple. I loved the small town feel of the book. Readers meet a wide range of folk as the plot thickens, and all are drawn with a light stroke. I’d quibble with some of the dialogue, which occasionally strays across the Atlantic – for example, no self-respecting rail passenger would ever ask for a ‘Single return’ at a British ticket office.
Overall this is an enjoyed this easygoing novel. And the Gladstone Library setting is a delight and now on my list of places to visit. Never Laugh As A Hearse Goes By comes out on 29 October.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars