Move along, Jessica Fletcher, Miss Marple and handsome Sicilian inspector ‘who swims in a sea of satin’: an endearingly rickety gang of senior detectives is hot on the scent of a purported serial killer (or shall I say ‘cereal killer’, given their focus on the importance of the most important meal of the day?), when the hazy July heat at the riverside village of Puddlecombe is jolted by five suspicious deaths (well, to be precise, just three, but the drama queen attitude is integral part of this story).
‘Shaking the Dandelions… no one gets murdered in Puddlecombe’ is local murder mystery queen Mary Chiappe’s latest novel, a few years in the oven and surely baked to golden perfection with all the ingredients of a classic British whodunit – or in this case whodun’t – from the Victorian house octogenarian landlady and her grumpy tenants to the supermarket-romance novelist spinster who’s gone from world travelling to mind tripping in a flick of her thesaurus, and to the unofficial intelligence agency desk set in a corner of the local corner shop.
Mary says: “Having read ‘A Bullet in the Ballet’ by Caryl Brahms and S.J. Simon at least half a dozen times in my life, towards the end of writing the Bresciano series with Sam Benady, it occurred to me that I wanted to write an entirely frivolous whodunit where you can take nothing seriously, no matter how many people drop dead.”
Indeed, prepare to laugh, giggle, chuckle, cackle, chortle, titter, guffaw and occasionally cachinnate – and any other synonym that the crafty narrator’s thesaurus may suggest – and perhaps pee your pants a little if you suffer of waterworks leaks, like most of the protagonists of this affectionate pastiche about the importance of making memories together. The author lays out idyllic settings, the result of her ‘ramblings round the East Sussex countryside’ during the 20 years she lived in Brighton, for a host of fictitious characters she swears aren’t inspired by anyone real, but surely have a bit of all our grandparents and elderly neighbours in them – and the idiosyncrasies we love and hate about them.
The narrator is 30-something year old Cassie (Cassandra), constantly reminded of her namesake’s unheeded divinatory destiny by deli shop owner/cleaning services mastermind Mrs Petrides, whose broken English is pivotal to close the flimsy murder case in court. Lodging at her once-actress and forever ‘tragedy queen’ cousin Sadie’s, an octogenarian with un-dwindling zest for life and high tea parties with an agenda, well-travelled Cassie writes fiction ‘with plenty of sexual tension but none of the action’ only to pay the bills, featuring dimwit busty heroines with names like Amanda, Apassionata, Aurora, whom she despises to the point she plots their violent demises as soon as the manuscript is submitted to the editor, with the help of grumpy Esau, the basement tenant who exists on a yo-yo diet and turns shiftier as the story progresses, chasing a mysterious agenda of his own.
While Cassie dreams of moving on from the letter A in her onomastic choices for her next book, perhaps leaping straight to Ximena, and perhaps upgrading to serious historical fiction, she also dreams of falling in her personal Mr Darcy’s strong arms any time soon.
After a rather embarrassing first impression, she can’t believe her ears when asked on a pub date by broodingly handsome and data-savvy detective inspector Edmund Gisburn who misconstrues her literary murder file, when he knocks at her door to investigate the circumstances of the death of the Old Trout, an obese woman and frankly detestable loner who lived up the street. Over a tall glass cocktail that tastes like fruity antifreeze fluid – because lager is unbecoming for a lady – Cassie fantasises about how to help him solve not just that murder, while he plays down foul play backed by the reasonable support of statistics.
When a second suspicious death… and a third… and the next-door spinster sisters’ double poisoning happen in alarming succession for the otherwise quiet town, sharp-minded Sadie mobilises herself to discover why elderly people are dropping dead like flies, questioning possible suspects over tea. Cassie seeks plausible motives – besides the literary sisterly suicide pact Edmund suggest to kick off her crime novel – for the sudden death of Guy, homeless man who is found to have been a wealthy but claustrophobic baron with shady heirs, and Diogenes, the compulsive hoarder and heyday women’s collector with a secret little black book, perhaps ‘done for’ by a jealous husband or a treasure hunter. Throw in the mix an ice-cream addict dog named Attila, a two-century old diary with disturbing clairvoyance, two recently bereft youngish women – a grudge-holding niece and an overzealous church volunteer who conveniently suffers a nasty fall when all leads point to her – and you have the perfect recipe for nuts pie, with the delightful and forgetful (but unforgettable) character of ill-medicated Frances Pembridge a.k.a. Tod (The Old Dear) pulling the strings together through insanity and remarkably lucid spells.
In the end, no murder is certified – or is it? – nor is romance – or is it? – when Cassie gives us a valuable relationships lesson by putting a sensible ending to her non-starter love story to prove herself how this is reality, not mushy romance fiction tailored for quick-quid sale, and there is no dignity in being involved with a sailor who has a woman in every port but to each claims he has none.
Though this isn’t a ‘crusade’ in defence of elderly people’s dignity, because Mary’s main objective is entertainment, she claims she is, however, ‘striking a blow for the Wrinklies’. “It’s easy to stereotype older folk, and there is also a temptation to define people by their age. We can even do it to ourselves with the danger of becoming ‘professional oldies’ instead of remaining vibrant individuals. Besides, having suddenly found myself nearing 80 without having noticed how it happened, I thought it would be fun to show that life begins at 70 or 80 or whenever you decide! Besides, I know so many friends aged over 80 and 90 who are a source of inspiration to me that a celebration of age seemed in order.”
Designed as a one-off but with a future sequel, prequel, spin-off not discarded (“Never say nay because there always are new characters asking to be born”), this must-read book opens a jocular but thoughtful can of worms on life after second youth and on ageism, and while it abundantly demonstrates how growing old is inevitable (and the alternative is way grimmer) but growing up is still optional, it also asserts that when one does it alone, old age can indeed be murder.
‘Shaking the Dandelions’ is available from selected local bookshops and from the author by emailing [email protected].