Having guided the redoubtable DI Geraldine Steel through 14 non-cosy cases, English crime author Leigh Russell has shifted her focus from the police procedural to the more gentle side of the crime genre with Barking Up the Right Tree. The first book in the A Poppy Mystery Tales series, it offers a plucky protagonist, a canine crimefighter, a charming village setting, an eccentric cast of supporting characters and a perplexing puzzle – the hallmarks of a quality cosy mystery.
After losing her job and her boyfriend in the space of just a week, Emily Wilson feels that her luck is finally beginning to change when she receives an unexpected inheritance from an elderly great aunt with whom she lost touch years ago. She has been left a cottage in the picturesque village of Ashton Mead, which offers her both a distraction and a way to overcome her immediate financial troubles. There is a catch, however, as the legacy will pass to another relative unless Emily agrees to look after any pets that were living in the cottage at the time of her great aunt’s death.
Despite not really being a pet person, Emily realises that she has little choice but to agree to this unusual stipulation and quickly makes the move from bustling Finsbury Park to tranquil Wiltshire. Once there, and after discovering that the only living creature in the cottage is a goldfish, Emily quickly settles in to her new home, befriending some of her fellow villagers and even securing a job at the Sunshine Tea Shoppe owned by new BFF, Hannah. It all seems too good to be true, which of course it is.
A knock at the door one morning turns out to be an old friend of her great aunt accompanied by a small white and brown puppy. The dog, Poppy, actually belonged to Emily’s relative but the woman had been looking after her. Now that Emily has made herself at home, the friend wants to drop Poppy off and take her goldfish home with her. While she could just about cope with being the owner of a goldfish, Emily has no desire to take on a dog, but she has even less desire to give up her new home.
Being a dog owner proves as difficult as Emily feared. Poppy seems to have a real bee in her bonnet about the high metal fence separating Emily’s cottage from the neighbouring property, meaning that she is constantly barking when in the garden and digging near the fence. Even worse, when Emily finally meets her new neighbour, the reclusive Alice Thomas, Poppy whines and pulls on the lead and the kerfuffle sends Alice scurrying home.
The interaction between Poppy and Alice piques Emily’s curiosity, as does the unusually sturdy nature of Alice’s garden fence, and she begins to ask questions about her new neighbour. Village scuttlebutt has it that Alice is a widow who moved to the village some years ago with her daughter Sophie, who is apparently off backpacking around the world despite the travel restrictions necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. It all seems a bit odd, and Emily becomes even more suspicious when she finds a diary in which her great aunt had written some cryptic notes about strange goings on next door and the possible disappearance of someone referenced only as ‘S’.
Emily comes to suspect that Alice is hiding something big, likely something to do with the absent Sophie. She also begins to suspect that her great aunt’s death may not have actually been the result of an accidental fall down the stairs. When her friends dismiss her suspicions as paranoia or fantasy and only Poppy the dog seems to sense there is something strange about Alice, Emily finds her investigation stymied. Will she be able to solve the mystery, especially after her ex-boyfriend reappears and throws her new life into disarray?
Fast-paced, fun and featuring a fiendish puzzle, Barking Up the Right Tree is a great start to Leigh Russell’s first cosy mystery series. Emily makes for an appealing amateur sleuth, even if she does sometimes fail to make the logical leap based on information she discovers and other times pays too much attention to dubious gossip rather than relying on her own experiences. Despite such flaws, which may be due to a lack of confidence following her job loss and relationship breakdown, she certainly has a nose for crime.
Indeed, most amateur sleuths would require far more signs than an unusual fence and an agitated dog before realising that something mysterious is afoot, but Emily determines that not all is right in Ashton Mead even before the discovery of her great aunt’s diary seems to confirm as much. From that starting point, she proceeds with her investigation in a logical and plausible manner, seeking out local gossip and taking steps to make the acquaintance of her main suspect. Although disappointed when new friends Hannah and Toby dismiss her concerns, she nevertheless perseveres with the case, albeit in a secretive manner that threatens to land her in trouble.
Unfortunately, there is one matter that distracts Emily from the investigation: the sudden reappearance of her former boyfriend, Ben. While he initially seems to just be a selfish and thoughtless git who is out for what he can get, Russell slowly drops hints that there might actually be something more sinister about his behaviour. In fact, similar to MH Eccleston’s The Trust, the overarching cosy atmosphere of the story is somewhat disturbed by the likelihood of previously unrecognised coercive control, gaslighting and financial abuse in their relationship. It’s a serious aspect of the story that Russell balances well with the far lighter elements.
Among those lighter elements that work particularly well is the setting of Ashton Mead, an apparently charming village that wouldn’t be out of place in the county of Midsomer. It’s a picturesque place filled with chocolate box cottages and friendly if somewhat eccentric locals who are happy to welcome Emily into their lives and festivities. The fact that it appears to be such a pleasant place juxtaposes nicely with the shocking secrets that Emily uncovers over the course of her investigation. The English country village has long been an integral aspect of both classic and cosy murder mysteries, and Russell has crafted a fine example of how, as Miss Marple would put it, “There is a great deal of wickedness in village life”.
As for the substance of that wickedness, the puzzle that Emily finds herself unpicking is a perplexing and surprising one. What begins with an unusual boundary choice and a daughter’s unlikely travel itinerary ends up somewhere completely unexpected, and there are a few shocks and several episodes of deadly danger along the way. There are also a number of odd side matters that she has to get to the bottom of too if she is to fully settle into village life and learn to trust those around her. If only Poppy were able to talk, things would become clearer far sooner and with much less heartache and distress.
Barking Up the Right Tree is an entertaining, puzzling and generally light-hearted cosy mystery that will appeal to fans of relatively bloodless crime. The village setting is charming and atmospheric, and it allows for a closed circle of suspects for intrepid amateur sleuth Emily to sift through, meaning that there is a decent chance of figuring out what is going on and solving the crime before she does so.
Also try Robert Thorogood’s Death Comes to Marlow or MH Eccleston’s Death Comes to the Costa del Sol.
Crime and Mystery Club
CFL Rating: 4 Stars