Swift-paced and gripping, as detective novels should be, this mystery is part Agatha Christie's Poirot and part modern crime novel in spirit and approach. An actress is murdered in a Victorian castle on a private island, before a comeback performance of 'The Duchess of Malfi', and amateur private detective Cordelia Gray must identify which of her fellow guests is the killer. The murder is sufficiently brutal (although I was surprised that a reference wasn't made to the play, given that quotations abound and the victim is found with her eyes covered), the clues tempting, and motives abound - yet the solution is rather disappointing. Perhaps the grubby explanation could never match up to the gothic setting and the creative evidence (quotations about death from plays by Shakespeare), but the ending felt pared down - the supporting cast leave the stage one by one, narrowing down the suspects, and after chasing the most tantalising clue from pillar to post, Cordelia is met with a clinical confession from the murderer. The clues point in the right direction, but the culprit is almost unworthy of the attention. And one small point - wouldn't it have been easy enough to get a reprint of the damning newspaper article from the British Library?Cordelia, despite her amateur status, is classically educated and almost arrogantly middle class, reminding me of Inspector Morse (whom I didn't like in book form, either). She, and the other guests at the castle, all recognise obscure quotes and can dredge up translations of Latin from schooldays - informative for the reader, particularly with regard to extending vocabulary ('preprandial' and 'rebarbative' are two of my favourites), but didn't endear me to the colourful but unreal characters. Everybody's reaction to finding the battered corpse of the actress is very stiff and repressed, until Cordelia analyses herself into a fit of silent tears. Being told how intelligent and talented a detective Cordelia is by the 'real' police didn't boost her charm, either.James' writing is skilfull and almost lyrical in places, but this Cordelia Gray mystery was a hit and miss experience for me. A thoughtful, very atmospheric tale with a weak ending.
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