Thursday, August 23, 2018

A Very Private Enterprise: Review

A Very Private Enterprise (1984) by Elizabeth Ironside* was the 1984 winner of the John Creasey Award for a crime fiction debut. It's all about the death of Hugo Frencham, a has-been British civil servant who has landed a position in Delhi where he was destined to spend his days till retirement. Except somebody decided to retire him (permanently) a bit ahead of schedule. He's found stabbed to death in the garden of his diplomatic bungalow--having unaccountably left a party in the British enclave much earlier than normal. Did he have a secret rendezvous that led to his death? Or are there other motives?

He was well-known as a collector of Tibetan and other Eastern art and a few recent acquisitions are found to be missing. Did someone have a deadly lust for a silver Buddha? But then George Sinclair, a secret service sleuth sent out from London, discovers a safe full of of gold bars in Hugo's office. Does Hugo's possession of so much (highly illegal!) gold have anything to do with his death? Sinclair works with the local Delhi police and members of the High Commission in Delhi, but it is visiting scholar Janey Somers who helps him find his way through all the red herrings to final solution.

Several years ago I discovered Death in the Garden by Elizabeth Ironside. It was an excellent historical mystery that I enjoyed very much (see review linked at the title). When I picked up A Very Private Enterprise, I had the vague idea that it was historical as well--possibly because that cover sortof implies it. It's not really (which--and admittedly this is my own fault for assuming--was disappointing). It is apparently set in the 1970s not long before its publication date, but there isn't anything in the text to definitely date it. In fact, as far as time frame goes, it has a very odd free-fall time period feel. You don't really feel like it takes place in a definite time at all. The way the British people in India behave it's like the British Empire is still going strong. But then it's obvious that India has its own government and police force and whatnot. It's apparent that this takes place before the regular use of computers and cell phones (but not too long) and, yet, the way parties and social interactions are described you could mistake it for pre-1950. 

In fact, I think this book would have been far better if Ironside had decided to make this a period piece from the days of Empire. I wasn't sold on the procedures of the (then) current investigating officers. It all seemed rather dated if I was supposed to believe that it was the late 1970s/early 1980s. The motive given in the final reveal also seems rather dated. The best part of the book was the character of  George Sinclair and his interactions with the various suspects, witnesses, fellow investigators, and, especially, Janey--who, of course, serves as a love interest. The production of red herrings and the road to the final reveal is quite good. This shows the promise of a good detective fiction writer, but I don't quite see why the book was chosen as the crime fiction debut award winner--unless, of course, all other debuts books that year were real duds (note to self--check out lists for 1984 debut crime fiction novels). A not-quite ★★ read, but I feel generous and will round up anyway.

[Finished 8/16/18]

*Elizabeth Ironside is the pseudonym of Lady Catherine Manning, wife of the British Ambassador to the U.S (2003-2007).

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