Murder at Madingley Grange, Caroline Graham
After spending a week in 14th-century Norway with Kristin Lavransdatter, I was craving something frivolous and funny. This light-hearted story certainly fit the bill. I know Caroline Graham primarily from the "Midsomer Murders" TV series based on her books. This is a stand-alone, however, with no connection to DCI Barnaby.
The story opens at Madingley Grange, "Four stories of vermilion brick luxuriously barnacled with pepper-pot turrets and gargoyles and embellished with balconies, moldings, lintels, architraves and the thousand other ills that nineteenth-century Strawberry Hill Gothic is heir to." Simon Hannford and his stepsister Laurie are staying there, house-sitting for their formidable Aunt Maude while she is off on a two-months' cruise. Perpetually short of cash, Simon has the brilliant idea of putting on a 1930s-themed "murder weekend" at the Grange, charging £250 per head. Laurie initially refuses, on the grounds that Aunt Maude would never approve, but Simon finally talks her into it.
At this point, I decided that Caroline Graham must be a fan of P.G. Wodehouse, because the set-up immediately reminded me of Stanley Ukridge, who develops a similar scheme while house-sitting for his formidable Aunt Julia (with disastrous results). I wasn't in the least surprised when the butler and maid Simon hires turn out to be impostors, on the lookout for whatever loot they can grab (Blandings Castle in particular is always infested with impostors). Simon is so caught up in his greedy schemes that he notices nothing odd about the pair, nor of course does he bother to check their references. He is also oblivious to how much work the weekend actually entails, most of it falling on Laurie, especially with the untrained "help" he has provided. I took to Laurie straight away, just as I found Simon irritating from the start.
On a sunny Friday afternoon, Simon collects nine guests from the railway station and drives them out to the Grange. The group includes a mother and daughter, a family group with an elderly mother, two single men, and a married couple, Derek and Rosemary Gregory. Derek is a Sherlock Holmes fanatic, complete with deerstalker and pipe, who lectures everyone incessantly on crime fiction. Fully prepared to play the great detective, he is quite put out to draw the victim's part. Of course no one knows who drew the murderer's card. But when Derek is found the next day, lying in a pool of blood on the conservatory floor, suddenly murder is no longer a game. And when the remaining guests discover that the phone lines have been cut, and the only car has been disabled, panic begins to set in. (The lack of cell phones is really the only clue I noticed that this book was originally published in 1990.)
This is a very clever story, and a very funny one at times. A couple of the plot twists took me completely by surprise, and I am still wondering about the ending. I have to say, I hope that Simon takes the fall!