Sunday, May 20, 2012

Review: A Will To Murder by Hilary Thomson

A Will to MurderWhen wealthy and eccentric patriarch James Boyle dies a peculiar death, the DA declines to investigate, convinced that the victim died of natural causes. Yet even the police are stunned when members of the Boyle family gather at the estate of Rollingwood for the reading of James' will - and begin to die, one at a time. Only when long-lost relative Bradley Smith appears, along with reporter Eric Maxwell, do the mysterious deaths finally receive a proper investigation. Even so, no one is prepared for the lunacy that hides beneath the mansion's bizarre facade.

The cover of this book intrigued me. Edward Steichen's famous photograph of actress Gloria Swanson promised a story from the flapper era and the font of the title and author's name reminded me of works that have to do with mysticism, so it's no wonder I expected an old-fashioned mystery with maybe some ghosts or at least a nice spooky seance. Out of these three I only got the old-fashioned mystery, and then only partially.
From the very beginning I could see that this book resembles one of Agatha Christie's cozy mysteries and the small-town setting, the multiple suspects who all have a motive, the extremely rich family with many secrets, and the amateur detective who just happens to be at the right place at the right time immediately endeared it to me. Another thing I saw right away was that the author has a real knack for setting the scene and characterization: in just a few short paragraphs I knew what sort of man James Boyle was and understood his reactions to what was going on. In fact, this continued throughout the book with the rest of the characters as well and made the book that much more enjoyable. I did have some trouble deciding at first when the book was set because the elderly gentleman in his bowler hat being driven around by a chauffeur hinted at a historical mystery but the clearly modern details indicated a much more recent time. The writing also reminded me of a bygone era with its thorough descriptions of places and people as well as a level of familiarity that never crossed into the intimate as it often does nowadays.
I appreciated the idea of having a portion of the story told from the point of view of a child. This provides a perspective an adult wouldn't have and Ms. Thomson seems to have a pretty good grasp on the complexities of a child's life to which we adults are often oblivious. I even missed the boy telling his version of the story when it was the adult's turn.
One of the things that pleasantly surprised me was how funny this book was. On one hand there's nothing humorous about death but the characters and their interactions brought me so many laughs I'm tempted to categorize this book as a satirical mystery. Not only is the dialogue clever, but the author managed to present her characters' peculiarities with such keen attention to detail that I applaud her for how observant she is and for her skill in bringing it to the page.
One of the things that dampened my enthusiasm for this book had to do with connecting the dots of the plot. It just didn't flow as smoothly as I would have liked it to. For example there was the matter of Eric's girlfriend appearing in the beginning of the book in a seemingly non-sequential role and then halfway through it turns out that somehow she's become an influential figure. I really did a double-take because I had no idea how that happened. The characters being alternately referred to by their first and last names was also troublesome. I'm not very good with names to begin with so feeling like an already populous cast has suddenly doubled did nothing for my comfort level. I often had to reread the paragraphs to figure out who was who and what it is they were doing.
A good mystery is supposed to leave the reader suspecting at least a few people and A Will To Murder succeeded at that. I of course got it all wrong, as usual, although in hindsight the identity of the murderer shouldn't have surprised me as much as it did. Oh well, better luck next time.
This was a very enjoyable and quick read and I would readily recommend it to any fan of mystery, especially one who can appreciate a few laughs on the side.

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