Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Dandy Gilver & the Proper Treatment of Bloodstains: Review

Our story takes place in the 1920s.  Dandy Gilver is a sharp-witted aristocrat with nursing experience from the Great War. She has found herself in mysterious circumstances and played the amateur sleuth in four other outings.  This particular adventure opens with a letter from Lollie Balfour.  Lollie is convinced that her once loving husband is plotting to kill her and she begs Dandy to come to her as a lady's maid and see if she can get to the bottom of Pip Balfour's strange behavior. Once Dandy is installed, she soon finds that every member of the household from the butler to the chauffeur, from the cook to the scullery maid has reason to fear and loathe the head of the house. And that's just during Dandy's first day on the job. The next morning, Pip Balfour is found murdered in his bed with a nice, big carving knife sticking out of his neck. Everyone has a motive, but it seems that few had an opportunity. How did the killer get in? Why did no one hear him (or her)? Why did Pip leave such a strange will? And will Dandy be able to maintain her cover long enough to answer all the questions?

I decided to read Dandy Gilver and the Proper Treatment of Bloodstains for two reasons--first, I needed to read a 2012 Award-Winning Book for the Monthly Motif Challenge (Sue Feder Historical Mystery Award--2012 Macavity Awards) and Catriona McPherson is originally from Scotland (and the book is set in Edinburgh) so it totally counts for the Read Scotland Challenge. sounded like a good read, the blurb on the front announced "Agatha Christie lives!" and the blub on the back told me "Readers who can’t get enough of Dorothy L. Sayers, Barbara Pym, and Dorothy Parker will definitely find a new favorite in Catriona McPherson’s smart and original mystery." I'm afraid I have mixed feelings on this one.

Be forewarned...there will are spoilers ahead.  There is no way to explain some of my misgivings without them.  Here on the blog, I will disguise them with faint text color as best I can....

Let's begin with the problem areas.  First off--Dorothy L. Sayers, McPherson is not. She does not display the literary knowledge, fluent writing, and intelligent banter among the characters necessary to wear that mantle. I wish critics and reviewers would stop comparing new authors to Sayers and Christie (and other Golden Age writers). It is extraordinarily rare to have one measure up--and when they don't, it usually detracts from what the author does well.

Second, Dandy's impersonation of a lady's maid shouldn't fool anybody. It's bad enough that she admits that her "vowels keep slipping"--but even with  that, she says she could explain it away by telling the other servants that she's gently born, but come down in the world.  Except she doesn't.  She says she will tell them, but there is never an indication in the text that she did.  We don't need the conversation.  A simple sentence referring to the revelation when they're all sitting round the table for dinner would do it.  But, no, we just have the servants snickering at her lofty ways. Then, whenever she's questioning anybody, it seems one minute they're suspicious of her questions or just wondering why this person who has only been in the house one day is so forward in her opinions and then the next minute they're all confiding in her.

Third (here be spoilers, skip now if you don't want to be spoiled--highlighting the apparent empty space will reveal all)--McPherson uses two of the oldest tropes in the mystery business. The butler did it and....not only did the butler do it, he is really a long-lost black sheep cousin come to do evil to everyone he meets.  Seriously?  AND he accomplishes his evil plots by hypnotizing every single member of the household.  Every. Single. One. Suspension of disbelief is one thing--but the reader is really, truly supposed to believe that not one of the servants was impervious to the power of suggestion?!  What are the odds that all of them...including our intrepid amateur susceptible? 

Now...for the good points. This is a fun story. Zany has been used by other reviewers--and it fits, in a good way. The characters are fun and likeable and I enjoyed watching the story unfold and wondering what Dandy was going to do next. McPherson represents the 1920s well. If the award given had been for historical fiction alone and not for historical mystery, I would be 100 percent in favor. She also manages to provide lots of red herrings and false is unfortunate that the method employed by the villain of the piece to produce those red herrings wasn't believable.  It would have been more effective if those red herrings would have had plausible explanations. Overall--good historical setting, interesting initial premise, likeable characters all add up to a decent three-star read.


J F Norris said...

I read the whole review. Ugh. Not for me. I've only ever read one book with the ending you talk about (written in the 1930s by a pulp writer) and I was thoroughly disgusted. I'm over the use of hypnosis in mysteries too. It's pretty much proven to be hogwash in our day and age.

fredamans said...

Yeah, though I love the era I don't think it's for me either. I appreciate the thorough review.

Tony Renner said...

I was trying to remember Dandy Gilver's name the other day.

I read this and it was o.k. but I guess the fact that I couldn't remember the name of the series character says something....