Thursday, May 12, 2005

Now That’s How It’s Done

Jigsaw, by Anthea Fraser, Read by Jacqueline Tong, BBC Audiobooks America, 2004

It’s only since I’ve started this site that I’ve come to know a subcategory of mystery novels known as the “cozy,” typically British mysteries that involve small towns, a fairly bloodless domestic crime, and amateur detectives. There is very little coarse language or graphic naughtiness of any kind, and you’d feel comfortable buying just about any cozy off the shelf for your churchgoing maiden aunt. In a world where there are no less than ten police/detective shows on broadcast television featuring mutilated corpses or raped mutilated corpses, the cozy can be either a nice retreat without entirely ignoring the fact that the world is a dangerous place or it can be a sanitized chunk of pabulum.

Like The Game reviewed earlier, Anthea Fraser’s Jigsaw is a book in the middle of a series of books. I knew this when I listened to The Game, despite my misgivings about joining a series midway through, but the library only offered that book of all King’s works unabridged. The name Anthea Fraser was completely unknown to me, and if you were to search you’d notice that it’s likely not well known to many Americans. I entered the world of Rona Parish without knowing what exactly I was stepping into.

The packaging of the book by BBC Audiobooks America (who are also lacking in any website for their wares) makes no mention of any of Fraser’s preceding novels, even when those are part of a group. This would be considerably helpful, though I fear it might have put me off listening to the novel — and that’s a pleasure I’m glad to have not been prevented from enjoying. Too often mystery novels lack any real external world unconnected to the murder under investigation. The Law & Order television show is a near-perfect example of this. We learn all but nothing about the characters, and story lines rarely carry over from one episode to the next. Tthe private lives of our detectives are only faintly outlined and illuminated by occasional comments.

Fraser writes a mystery novel for a discerning adult reader. The most enjoyable thing about Jigsaw is how much of the story doesn’t revolve around the murder. Everyone still has their own lives, their own affairs and heartbreaks, their own petty concerns that loom so large in their lives. Human interest journalist Rona Parish decides to write about the tiny town of Buckford, gearing up to celebrate its 800th anniversary, and as she begins interviewing the locals, bits and pieces of a tantalizing tale of murder start to turn up. Ultimately the murderer gets wind of this and tries to put a stop to Parish’s investigations. Along the way we get those fantastic breaks amateurs are always finding, we get the stereotypical patronizing police detective who wishes amateurs to hell, and we get the story of several real human lives intersecting this dark secret.

We meet Rona’s twin sister Lindsey who has found herself trapped in a relationship with her emotionally abusive ex-husband Hugh. The weekend rendezvous booty calls that were completely satisfying for Lindsey have convinced Hugh that his ex-wife wants him back. He applies for a transfer to her town and reacts poorly when Lindsey explains that she only wanted a weekend lover. When Lindsey later sees him with another woman, she is destroyed. Tom and Avril, Rona and Lindsey’s parents, are stuck in a marriage that is slowly, glacially falling apart. With both of them dreading their forced cohabitation once Tom retires, Avril becomes more and more snappish, pushing her husband away. On his end, Tom is being tempted toward another woman, a cultured, arty woman without Avril’s sharp tongue. On the happier end of the balance sheet, there is Rona and her husband Max, a painter and art teacher, and Magda and Gavin, old friends of Rona’s. Max is concerned one of his students is being abused by her husband, while Gavin’s health is a bit dicey.

All of these familial issues are given just as much if not more face time in the book than the brutal stabbing murder some time ago of Barry Pollar, the man whose drunk driving killed four year old Charlotte Spencer. Rona’s sleuthing uncovers the plot that led to Charlotte’s father, Alan, being set up for the crime and eventually clears his name. Rona also helps reveal why Clive Banks, the estranged husband of Nuala Banks, Rona’s bed & breakfast landlady, is back in town and what dodgy schemes he’s up to.

If you get the impression that a Rona Parish mystery novel is filled with suspects, I’m afraid that’s very much a red herring. Despite a population that would equal that of an Agatha Christie cozy, Fraser’s book teems with a multitude of characters who have business entirely unrelated to the actual crime. Narrowing down suspects in the novel gave approximately two serious contenders before the book was even half over, though Fraser did try to throw a few false leads our way. By the time of the climactic unmasking, I already knew whodunnit and didn’t particularly care all that much, though the killer’s confession reads a bit pat, a too tidy convention. While that may sound dismissive of what Fraser’s doing, it isn’t meant to. It’s just that the non-crime world she’s created is equally, if not more, compelling, and I was eager to see how their crimes of the heart were resolved.

Another gratifying aspect of the novel was how much we don’t get. Fraser, having created real, three-dimensional characters with problems of a real-world size, doesn’t wrap up everything in a nice final reel Hallmark moment. In fact, the great number of personal loose ends the book leaves hanging encourages us to read more of this author. I wanted to find out whether or not her parents work out their difficulty, if her sister will get over the ex-husband, will Gavin get better, and what of the art student — is she a battered wife or what? Fraser writes a mystery series that is compelling simply because it features real people whose lives just happen to stumble into mysteries, rather than a mystery-solving stumbler who has the outline of a life sketched in the background.

BBC Audiobooks America, for all their marketing shortcomings, regularly uses the type of microphones that make it sound as though the reader is right there in a warm, snug room with you: hardwood floors, deep rugs, floor to ceiling book shelves, the tea in the pot between you, a half-eaten biscuit on your plate, and a good friend catching you up. Jigsaw’s reader Jacqueline Tong, while delivering a lovely performance of various voices and accents, does have the unfortunate quality of not pausing long enough between sections of a chapter, and we lunge into another character’s reflections, having to catch up to understand who exactly we’re hearing. When there are consistent characters between scenes it’s even more confusing. Rona is over at her sister’s having tea, then instantaneously Rona’s husband is calling up the stairs. Did he come over to his sister-in-law’s house? No, we’re in a new setting already. This would be unfortunate in any book; in a mystery, where there is so much deliberate confusion already, it can be deadly.

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