Tuesday, September 24, 2019

The House on Downshire Hill (possible spoilers at the end)

The House on Downshire Hill (2018) by Guy Fraser-Sampson, begins, as all good detectives novels do, with murder. Well...first we have a concerned neighbor reporting that she has seen no signs of life from her neighbor's house for about two weeks. It's not unusual for Conrad Taylor to not be seen for long stretches of time--after all he is known to be a curmudgeonly recluse. But there is that weird young man named Raj who has lived with him for the last two years and nothing has been seen of him either. The Hampstead Heath nick has a bit of down time (they've just closed up an involved murder) and Superintendent Collison asks DC Priya Desai to follow up on the neighbor's report. At first, Priya thinks she'll be paying a courtesy call and nothing more--after all Taylor was a 60-something adult who didn't seem to be in any danger and adults do odd things sometimes. But the longer she talks with the neighbors (including a second, less-reclusive, slightly less-curmudgeonly older man) the more she believes that something really is wrong. Long story short--the team winds up breaking Taylor's door in and discovers him dead from the proverbial blunt instrument to the head.

The house is piled with papers everywhere and the team isn't sure if they will find the house mate's body somewhere among them or not (not). Finally, they're left with several questions: Who is Raj and what's happened to him? Why did a recluse let a total stranger live with him? What happened to the family who lived in the house before Taylor? And why did they disappear so abruptly and completely? Why is Special Branch so interested in the case? And what does the second body (buried about the time the family disappeared) have to do with it all--if anything?

[Possible Spoilers Ahead: Continue at your own risk.]

So, I keep waiting for Fraser-Sampson to hit one completely out of the park (I'm quite sure he's got a five-star book in him). We're closer this time. But still not quite there. In reviews of previous entries in The Hampstead Murders series, I've commented on situations when various team members (or multiple team members) have had forehead-smacking moments where they say something like "why didn't we see X or Y before?" and I'm thinking "Yeah, why didn't you? I did." This time that wasn't part of the dialogue (yay!)...but there is a moment long before they recognized it when I was saying "hasn't it occurred to them that the big, 40ish man might be Conrad's son"??? It seemed to take quite a long time for someone to come up with that idea. Most of the "gotcha" moments come at the end right after a witness has been re-interviewed and that worked very well, showing how Priya put together little clues from earlier interviews and conversations to pinpoint the culprit.

Another little quibble: this is the second book in a row where one of the team members gets personally involved with one of the suspects/witnesses and that creates a separate set of tensions. This time we double the tension by straitjacketing Collison and Metcalfe with Special Branch instructions that specifically tell them they can't let Priya in on why she's being particularly instructed not to share anything with her new girlfriend. It just seemed unnecessary, especially since that whole Special Branch connection seemed to fizzle out. 

And,finally, (and this really isn't a big deal...it just niggles at me)--why on earth did we introduce the whole "papers all over the house" thing and make a big deal of devoting all those manpower hours to digging through every last one of them if there wasn't going to be some major revelation? Yes--we did discover Raj's full name and that he was diddling a corpse out of funds. But surely to goodness we could have just had a pile of unopened mail in the letterbox/inside the front door and gotten there just the same. It made it seem like there really might be something to the whole Special Branch side of things and, again, that just fizzled out.

However--even with quibbles--this is a fine addition to the story of Collison and his team and another nicely plotted mystery with hat tips to Golden Age methods. The personal side of the story continues to grow and I'm still enjoying watching the developments. We continue to get signals that Collison may be moving up in the world soon--maybe to Special Branch and Karen Willis may be joining him. I'm interested to see what Fraser-Sampson has in store for the Hampstead team. ★★★★

Deaths = 2 (one strangled; one hit on head)

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