Saturday, March 31, 2012

A Sprig of Sea Lavender: Review

A Sprig of Sea Lavender by J. R. L. Anderson has been something of a Holy Grail-type book for me. It got added to my TBR/TBF list sometime in the 1980s and I've kept an eye out for it whenever I've gone to used book stores or book sales--with no luck. And then my mother-in-law went to visit her sister at Christmas and they went to a used book store in Jacksonville, FL. Mom-in-law was armed with a list of some of my most-wanted books (she didn't seem to want to take all 10-15 pages of my To-Be-Found list with her--I can't imagine why). Wonder of wonders, she came home with the Anderson book (along with 30-some others; have I mentioned what a great mom-in-law I have?).

Now, I can't exactly explain why this book appealed to me so much that I kept it on the TBF list for 20 years. I found it listed in The Mystery Lover's Companion by Art Bourgeau and something about his synopsis grabbed me and held on tight:

Piet Deventer of Scotland Yard investigates the murder of a young woman found dead on a train, with a fortune in artworks in a portfolio next to her. The only clue is a sprig of sea lavender. the trail leads to the seaside in an excellent read.

Not precisely a description to make you drop everything and run out to find it.....and yet I felt like it was a must-find. And, while I have disagreed with some of his favorites, I have found his ratings to be pretty reliable over-all.

Now, of course, you're wondering--was it worth the wait?

First things first, though. How about a little more on what it's all about? As mentioned the story begins and centers on the death of a young woman on a train. She comes rushing to the platform just as the train was pulling out and is hauled aboard by a young solicitor from London. From the beginning, he thinks she isn't feeling well and isn't surprised when she seems to fall into an exhausted sleep. However, when they reach their destination he finds that he can't waken her. For good reason, she's dead. The woman has no identification on her and the only items found in her possession or near her in the compartment are a portfolio of artwork and a sprig of wildflower later identified as sea lavender.

Chief Inspector Piet Deventer has had experience as an artist and serves as part of the Fine Arts Division of Scotland Yard. He is called in to check out the portfolio and is astonished find that three of the paintings appear to be unknown works by Constable, Gainsborough and Turner. If genuine, this means that the young woman was carrying a treasure-trove of artwork with her when she died. An examination soon proves that she died of an overdose of barbiturates--but the case is further complicated by the traces of arsenic also found in her system. Using good old-fashioned leg work, Deventer manages to discover the identity of the victim and uses his background in the arts to go undercover at a seaside art colony to get to the bottom of mystery.

This is a good, solid mystery. Not quite as fairly clued as I would like (there's no way I could have figured out the true identity of the culprit/s), but a nicely written police procedural. I like the character of Piet Deventer very much and would like to read more stories featuring him (note to self--are there more stories featuring him? A quick peek at the interwebs would seem to say no. :-( ). I'm glad I kept the book on my list--but, in all honesty, it's not the Holy Grail of mysteries, nor anything like. Just a good average book written in the late 70s. A quick read and full of adventure. Three stars.


I agree that her story is improbable, but the improbable is not necessarily untrue.
~Wilbur Constantine (p. 125)

But reason is one thing, imagination another, and imagination here was not greatly comforted by reason. (p. 164)


Debbie Rodgers said...

It's good you found it, though, Bev - it's an exciting moment in the hunt! Too bad it didn't live up to expectations but now you know... ;-)

J F Norris said...

That store in Jacksonville must be Chamblin's Book Mine. Joe and I have been there a couple of times. There are two locations, but the main store, tucked away in a cul de sac under I-95, is massive. The mystery section seems to have one of every title in the world. No wonder your mother-in-law hit the jackpot with your list.

I think I read this one when it first came out. I must've been in high school. I know I read almost all those Dell titles with the "Scene of the Crime" or "Murder Ink" imprint on them. Those titles were hand picked by the owners of those two mystery book stores and I was sort of obsessed with Murder Ink when I was younger. It was the first mystery book store I ever visited and I thought it was an amazing idea.

Bev Hankins said...

John: You are, as usual, right. Chamblin's it is. And...they went to the smaller store. When the owner found out that my mom-in-law had a list in hand, she faxed it to the bigger store, they gathered up what they could find in an hour's time and brought them over. Talk about service!