Saturday, 19 April 2014

Mystery Review: 'Charity Begins With Murder' by Annie McDowall

Charity Begins with Murder

This is a quirky little book, filled with eccentric characters who are nevertheless completely believable, reacting to an increasingly dramatic sequence of events exactly as you would expect normal people to react. The first response to new information or a threat is always ‘let’s tell the police’ instead of the all-too-common policy in amateur sleuth stories of attempting to deal with everything single-handedly.

The plot: Nikki is out of work and depressed after a traumatic event at a previous job, forced back into work by the government’s ruthless program to reduce the unemployment numbers. She reluctantly takes a job as receptionist for a charity in a seedy part of London, where her boss dies in the middle of a meeting on Nikki’s first day at work. And from there onwards, things get steadily worse.

Nikki is a fairly likeable character, and her friends are an entertaining bunch. I don’t know London very well (I live at the other end of the country) but I did wonder how realistic it was to find quite so many gay, black/coloured, disabled and otherwise minority groups in an area who were all such cheerfully nice people, while the middle-class white folks were – well, less nice, in many cases, and downright creepy and villainous in some. It seemed a little like inverse type-casting. In my experience you find good, bad and downright weird in all ethnicities, and always more good than bad. I was half hoping that one of the minority characters would turn out to be a villain or at least pilfering the coffee money, just to redress the balance a bit, but no.

The early chapters were a little slow, and it took forever to determine that the initial death was indeed murder and not merely a tragic accident, which was frustrating given the book’s title. After that, the story unfolds very nicely, and winds up to fever pitch at just the right moment, although the reveals weren’t terribly surprising. The book is easy to read, although the author likes to detail every little part of each conversation, however banal. I’d have preferred a little more snappiness, but that’s just me.

I found the romance element a little too dominant for this kind of plot where the murder should be the main feature – and no, that’s not just because it involved a lesbian love triangle. I thought the new romance was rather sweet and beautifully judged, but the old flame angle got a bit tedious after a while. Too much angsting for my taste. However, for anyone who dislikes gay characters, be warned: the main character and most of her friends are gay, the gay lifestyle dominates and there is some (tastefully done) sex.

An entertaining, if light-hearted, read, with some well-drawn characters and a good sprinkling of British humour. I would have liked a little more unpredictability and perhaps a tad less political soap-boxing. Three stars.

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