Monday, June 05, 2006

The Book That's Brilliant

The Torso in the Town, by Simon Brett, Read by Geoffrey Howard, Blackstone Audio, 2002

What wins me over time and again with certain British cozies are the attention paid to life as it is lived and realistic characters who just happen to stumble into unpleasantness. There is much to be said for the notion that most crimes are not committed by master geniuses and as such do not require master geniuses for the solutions.

This is nothing against well-written intelligent mysteries, but there is an understated charm to murder mysteries with rather mundane motives, mundane killers, and mundane circumstances. Enough with brilliant psychopaths and serial killers and the penetrating but tortured detectives who track them down through a series of seventy eight novels.

Simon Brett, also author of another series of cozy mysteries featuring struggling actor, Charles Paris, returns for a second tale of murder featuring two middle aged single ladies, Jude and Carole. The Torso in the Town is the follow-up to the second book in the series Death on the Downs, and even if the story does revolve partly around unfinished romance from the pair’s previous, it can stand alone as a pleasurable read. The series continues the quaint if silly title alliteration, pairing body with beach, hanging with hotel, murder with museum, witness with wedding, and, my favorite, stabbing with stables.

Torso starts off innocuously enough, a slow and pleasant introduction to the town of Fedborough near Fethering (Jude and Carole’s town) and the various guests at a dinner party hosted by the newly rich Roxbys, who have moved into Pelling House. The scene showcases Brett’s skills honed in television writing, neatly and succinctly sizing up the guests, including an interesting dissection of the appearances of people in the town and how their conversation and dress explains their social class. The party is interrupted by the scream of the hosts’ children: they have discovered a body in the basement.

Jude, the more mysterious of the pair (we only sort of discover her last name through Carole’s nosiness in this, the third novel), happens to be a guest at the dinner and her amateur curiosity is piqued. Her neighbor Carole, nursing a broken heart from a failed romance with a local tavern owner, has been avoiding society lately and Jude thinks the tantalizing aspects of this new case just might urge her back out of her shell.

The body, it seems, was only part, the legs and arms were gone, and suspicion in the town quickly places blames on soddy old drunk Roddy Hargreaves whose estranged wife Virginia disappeared just over three years ago — exactly as long as the coroner places time of death for the torso. As the official investigation plods along following the most obvious of clues, Jude and Carole pursue their own line of inquiry using their wiles. Their best investigative trick is to use the town’s upcoming art-walk, a sort of stroll through the more prominent homes of the town’s residents, ostensibly perusing the art, while they pump the villagers for gossip, scandal, and any other backstory that might shed some light on the crime.

This particular trick allows Brett to continue the gentle skewering of middle and upper class Britons that began at the dinner party that opened the novel. We are treated to a variety of types, the social climbing wife of the town’s ex-butcher, the high society snob, and the town cleric, a wishy-washy Anglican who delivers sermons on heaven, always making sure to mention that other denominations believe other things about heaven and of course that’s quite all right, you know.

As for our detectives, it’s interesting that even though Jude is the dominant partner, we learn little of her interior life, little of her personality, just as Carole learns next to nothing about her. Carole’s psychology is laid out clearly, almost first person confessional style, which is an interesting twist, as she is the more reticent, more reserved. And even though that is how she sees herself as reserved (more a comparative reflection she makes when in the presence of Jude), she is the one who interviews the most people and does much of the legwork. The pair are a kind of Mutt and Jeff act, Jude loosey-goosey to Carole’s stiff upper lip.

Reader Geoffrey Howard delivers everything smoothly, lightly, trippingly, never losing sight of Brett’s singular style of slightly amused remove. He wisely avoids trying too distinctly for characterization, a cross gender trick almost no one can pull off without aggravating the reader.

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