The Corpse with the Garnet Face by Cathy Ace

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Will the Welsh Canadian writer Cathy Ace ever run out of precious stones and human body parts for her book titles? They usually go The Corpse with… [Gem Name] [Body Part] and they star the sensible middle-aged academic with a photographic memory, Cait Morgan. The Corpse with the Garnet Face assures us that the author hasn’t yet run short of inspiration. In this seventh instalment we find Cait and her husband Bud on a trip to Amsterdam, trying to disentangle a vexed family inheritance.

Bud discovers he had an uncle Jonas on his mother’s side that he’s never heard of before. His mother had lost touch with her brother when he ran away from home many years ago and she alleges that he was no good. However, when this uncle dies suddenly in Amsterdam, he has a simple request for Bud and Cait: that they visit the city which he adopted as a home, give away some of his paintings, and delve a little deeper into his life there and his friends, who are all equally passionate about art.

Sounds like a perfect excuse for indulging in what Cait enjoys most: good food, drink, places to explore and new people to chat with. There is something strange and cryptic, however, about Jonas’ last request, a hint at something much deeper and nastier beneath the apparently serene friendship of fellow artists. Jonas was a gifted artist but never attempted to make money out of from his pictures and was content to eke out a living as an unqualified museum guard. The ‘garnet face’ refers to the garish birthmark on Jonas’ face, which coloured not just his skin but his outlook on life, although it didn’t necessarily make him a bad person.

This being Amsterdam, you may well expect drugs or diamonds to feature in the criminal mix, but Cathy Ace is too clever to rely on the most obvious clues. Through the eyes of our intrepid world travellers, we encounter quite a procession of eccentric characters: a grumpy family lawyer and his confused mother, an elderly art supplier who hates the police, a gossipy Irish woman with a wooden leg, a lascivious and cold-hearted snob, the sneering aristocrat and several other so-called best friends of Jonas. What binds together this odd mix of people? Is it really a love of Van Gogh and other Dutch artists, as they are keen to emphasise, or do they share a far more deadly secret?

Cathy Ace sets her mysteries firmly within the cosy cannon, without resorting to knitting, baking, grooming of cats, or any other of the so-called feminine pastimes which you sometimes see in such books. All the murders happen more or less off stage in this novel, and there is a real puzzle for mystery lovers to solve. Many of the clues are there, if you read carefully, and we are privy to a few spirited discussions between the sleuthing duo (a middle-aged version of Tommy and Tuppence) as they try to connect the dots. So far, so classic. Ace’s trump card, of course, is vicarious travel and gourmet dining via our amateur detectives. While this is on the whole enjoyable (and utterly believable when Ace describes landscapes she is fully conversant with), in this book there were a couple of occasions when it felt like she was quoting from a guidebook. As with previous books, the author relies on a closed group of possible suspects, although this time it is not so much of a locked-room mystery and therefore perhaps slightly less suspenseful, although more realistic.

Despite these misgivings, it remains an enjoyable series for the armchair traveller and a softer alternative for those who enjoy character-driven puzzles.

The series began with The Corpse with the Silver Tongue in 2012.

Touchwood Editions

CFL Rating: 3 Stars

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