Remember that thumbs-down I gave A Strange Brand of Happy in August? This is the day, friends, when I reveal the other haul item I mysteriously alluded to, and that is…drum roll, please…Julianna Deering’s mystery novel, Dressed For Death. Yeah, I know, it took me long enough. Life, people. Life got in the way. Anyway, like most clearance buys, I had never heard of it, but it was one of those what-the-heck purchases, and it looked interesting. The fourth in a series of six Drew Farthering Mysteries, Dressed For Death sets out to be a mix of Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie, with a generous twist of Jane Austen.
The story is set in England in 1932. Drew Farthering and his new wife, Madeline, are on their way to a Regency party at a country estate. That’s right–they are there to dress as in Jane Austen’s day, eat as in Jane Austen’s day, play as in Jane Austen’s day, and–let’s not forget–dance as in Jane Austen’s day. For one week. Understandably, the men are largely less enthusiastic about the plan than the women, but in Drew’s case, he goes along like a sweetie because Madeline is so gung-ho about it. He even quotes Austen on more than one occasion (Respect!). It helps that the mother of his good friend and employee, Tal Cummins, is hosting the party. Tal’s fiancee, Alice is also there, lovingly keeping tabs on Tal while keeping the party moving. Two of the guests are Carrie and her brother Will, Americans who are vacationing in Britain and have made friends with Alice and Tal. Will is a spoiled and pretentious teenager who has to be reined in by Carrie now and then. She has to talk him into participating, the dancing in particular.
The week goes off mostly swimmingly until the last night. In fact, things are downright placid to the point that Madeline and her friends cook up a fake mystery for Will to solve involving Madeline’s string of pearls. After a week of picnics, recitations, and other Austen-worthy pursuits, Mrs. Cummins hosts a dance. She opens it up to others who weren’t at the Regency party so that her excursion guests can show off their new dancing skills.
When the dance is in full swing, Alice suddenly appears, acting strangely. Although she’s usually vivacious, on this night she seems, well, high. She drags Drew out on the dance floor and is unusually and uncomfortably clingy. Even weirder, Alice is suddenly antagonistic towards Tal, going on about dark secrets only she knows. Drew and Tal try to escort Alice to her room, but she collapses on the way. Once they’ve laid her on the bed, she goes into convulsions. Tal frantically calls for the doctor, but before he can get there, Alice dies.
Most of the core group elect to stay at the Cummins estate while Drew ferrets out the mystery (I’m assuming they get to dress in their regular clothes since the Regency party is over). This is not the round-up-the-usual-suspects type of mystery, either. The characters have time to deal with their various idiosyncracies and reflect on what happened. They also fit in some group outings, such as a trip to the movies or to look at the ruins of an old church.
Which brings up a not-so-small problem.
Not to be mean or anything, but the mystery aspect of Death is pretty flaccid. I’m not going to go so far as to compare Deering to such canonical writers as Christie, Doyle, or Chesterton, because that would really be unfair. but it seems to me that the novel needs more tension. A lot more. What usually happens in mystery stories? The sleuth looks for clues. They brood. They experience false starts or dead ends. They fly in the face of the naysayers, usually jaded law enforcement officers, who normally serve only to book the baddies. The momentum builds, and finally the whole deal winds up with some kind of rock ’em, sock ’em finish.
In most of Dressed For Death, Drew doesn’t look for clues beyond walking around the estate. He lets the police tell him what’s up. He has tea with a vicar. He’s able to read recreationally. He spends time with Madeline. What is really ironic is that at one point is that Tal tells Drew he’s useless. An apology quickly follows, and there are no hard feelings, but on a certain level I agreed with him. Drew is a nice guy, but as a sleuth, he was too busy playing what my high school social studies teacher called “kutsifatsie” (read: he wasn’t on the ball) to do much sleuthing. He keeps telling people that he’ll figure out what killed Alice and then there’s no follow-through. I kept waiting for him to search Alice’s room for physical evidence, talk to the other party guests, or something. On the plus side, Drew counsels various characters who are feeling despondent, and when he gets depressed, Madeline encourages him to keep going and solve the mystery.
What would have been really great in this novel would have been for the other characters to help Drew search for clues. Especially Will. He’s spoiled and annoying, not to mention a wannabe sleuth, so having him shadow Drew could have been an interesting angle for the story. A little more fact-checking would have also been a boon–for instance, the story mentions that Madeline’s favorite actor is Cary Grant, but Grant wasn’t a star until around 1937. Maybe Madeline was an unusually prescient lady.
The leisurely pacing was all well and good, but, again, as I read I kept having to remind myself that Death was supposed to be a mystery. Other characters die after Alice, but it didn’t mean as much as it could have. When the end finally came, I was too relieved that things were over to care very much whodunnit. Lest this all seem too harsh, I enjoyed reading Dressed For Death just as a story. It’s not boring by any means. As a mystery, though, it doesn’t quite cut it, and if the reviews on Amazon are any indicator, this book is the weakest in the Drew Farthering series. In spite of that, I’d still be interested in reading some of the other books to see how Drew has progressed as a character. I’m curious to know what he was like before he got married, as well as how the series has been handled after he and Madeline were beyond the honeymoon stage.
Check back here tomorrow for our final blogathon of 2017:
It’s gonna be a fun one, as all blogathons are. See you tomorrow!