Dandy Gilver and an Unsuitable Day for a Murder by Catriona McPherson

Oh, what a tangled web we weave
When first we practise to deceive!

(from Sir Walter Scott: Marmion Canto VI, XVII)

I wasn’t very far into reading Dandy Gilver and an Unsuitable Day for a Murder when this quotation (above) came into my mind. This is a remarkably complicated plot, with the most difficult family relationships that I’ve ever come across. Fortunately there are two family trees in the opening pages of this book that go some way to sorting it all out.

This is the sixth Dandy Gilver Murder Mystery book:

When the heiress to a department store goes missing, Dandy is summoned to Dunfermline, where two warring families run rival stores. As Dandy starts to unravel family secrets, she begins to discover disturbing connections and it’s not long before she’s in over her head.

(extracted from the summary on the back of my advanced reader copy)

This summary says it all really. It’s set in Dunfermline in 1927 and the two families are the Aitkens and the Hepburns. At the beginning of the book Mirren Aitken and Dugald Hepburn, the two youngest offsprings of the families have disappeared. Rumour has it that they have eloped and both families are dead against their marriage.

But is there more to it than commercial rivalry? Dandy thinks so and when Mirren is discovered dead on the attic floor of Aitkens’ Emporium, apparently having shot herself, she is even more convinced. Added to that on the day of Mirren’s funeral Dugald is found dead on top of the lift up to the Aitkens’ attic. Together with Alec Osborne, her sleuthing partner, she sets about unravelling the truth even though this is against both families’ wishes.

There are things I like about this book. The setting in Dunfermline is convincing, the descriptions of both stores provide fascinating details of the 1920s department stores. In a note at the beginning of the book Catriona McPherson acknowledges that she has used what she describes as, ‘the insanely detailed and unexpectedly riveting‘ book From Ascending Rooms to Express Elevators: A History of the Passenger Elevator in the Nineteenth Century by Lee E Gray (2002).

I liked the puzzle aspects of this book, even though I failed to work it out completely. But I thought that most of the characters were difficult to distinguish, partly because their names were too confusing, with alternative names – Mary Aitken, also known as Mrs Aitken and Mrs Ninian Aitken or Mrs Ninian. There is also Arabella Aitken, also called Mrs Aitken, Mrs Jack Aitken, Mrs Jack or simply Bella (I liked that version best). I even found the men’s names troublesome, what with Robert and Robin, Mr Hepburn, young Mister Hepburn and Master Hepburn – I could go on. Dandy and Alec are similarly confused.

It’s a very detailed book (and not just about the lift) and at times that became confusing too so that I had to keep flipping backwards to go over passages making sure I understood it. It has a heavy sombre tone and there is quite a lot of repetition as Dandy and Alec keep reviewing what they have discovered and wondering what it all means. For me it could have been much more succinct. Despite these misgivings I did like this book, but not as much as the earlier Dandy Gilver books that I’ve read.

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Minotaur Books (22 May 2012)
  • Language English
  • ISBN-10: 1250007372
  • ISBN-13: 978-1250007377
  • Source: Advance Reader Copy
  • My Rating 3/5

After the Armistice Ball by Catriona McPherson

After the Armistice Ball is the first book in the Dandy Gilver series. I’ve read a couple of the later books in the series and had to read this one in order to find out how Dandy (short for Dandelion) first became an amateur detective, or Society Sleuth, as she is called on the book cover.

It all began when there is an alleged theft of Lena Duffy’s jewels at Daisy Esslemont’s annual Armistice Ball in 1922 and Daisy asks Dandy to find out what really happened. Dandy is a bored wife, whose husband, Hugh is the ‘hunting, shooting and fishing’ type. The theft of the jewels is rapidly pushed to the sidelines after the death of Lena’s daughter, Cara in a lonely beach cottage in Galloway. Accompanied by Cara’s jilted fiancé, Alec Osborne, Dandy is faced with the puzzle of Cara’s death. Was she killed, or did she commit suicide? She had died in a fire, whilst on her own in the cottage – why was the cottage always kept so hot, so hot that the coal that was supposed to last all winter had been finished in one week?

The setting in the 1920s is convincing, the sense of dislocation after the First World War, the class divide and the contrast between the idle rich and the poor. The locations are beautifully described, and the characters are lively and come to life, particularly Dandy, although Hugh does seem to be a cardboard cut-out, but the book dragged in the middle as Dandy and Alec went over and over, and over the events and theorised about what had happened and why.

I too puzzled over the mystery and I did find the ending rather confusing, so much so that I had to re-read parts of the book to sort out what I thought had happened. I’m still not sure, but I think I know. Having said all that, I did enjoy the book, and apart from the middle section I raced through it and that’s probably where I missed some salient points.

My Rating: 3/5

I borrowed the book from my local library

Wondrous Words Wednesday

Wondrous Words Wednesday is a weekly meme where we share new (to us) words that we’ve encountered in our reading. It is hosted by Kathy, over at BermudaOnion’s Weblog.

My words this week come from After the Armistice Ball by Catriona McPherson, set in 1922.

  • jounced – ‘Alec increased the speed again as we passed the sign for Reivers Rest and we jounced over the close-cropped turf faster and faster until the car rounded the last of the gorse into the open and skidded to a slithering halt.

I could tell from the context what ‘jounced’ means, but it’s a word I’ve not come across before. Looking it up I found it does mean just what it sounds like – ‘to jounce is to move or cause to move with bumps and jolts’ (from The Free Dictionary).

I like the Wikipedia definition of jounce – ‘in physics, jounce or snap is the fourth derivative of the position vector with respect to time, with the first, second, and third derivatives being velocity, acceleration, and jerk, respectively; in other words, the jounce is the rate of change of the jerk with respect to time.’ As I said, just what I thought it was!

  • Thawpit – ‘I should begin calmly but ready to dissolve into tears if the occasion arose and a corner of my handkerchief was soaked in Thawpit to help with the dissolving.’

I had no idea what Thawpit was – and amazingly discovered that it was a a stain remover, a solvent that containing carbon tetrachloride. It’s no longer available, presumably because of the danger of sniffing it etc. No wonder Dandy Gilver (the amateur sleuth in the book) ‘succumbed to a fit of weeping’ when she ‘dabbed her eyes’ with the Thawpit soaked hankie.

  • chafing-dish – ‘I trigger no obvious trip-wire en route from my bedroom to the ground floor, but every morning Pallister appears with a chafing-dish just as I’m sitting.’ He then cooked Dandy’s eggs.
An old woman poaching eggs in a glazed earthenware chafing dish over charcoal

A chafing-dish is a new term to me. Wikipedia explains that it is ‘a kind of portable grate raised on a tripod, originally heated with charcoal in a brazier, and used for foods that require gentle cooking, away from the fierce heat of direct flames.’


Dandy Gilver and the Proper Treatment of Bloodstains by Catriona McPherson

I hadn’t come across any of Catriona McPherson’s books until the publishers emailed me about her latest book – Dandy Gilver and an Unsuitable Day for a Murder, which is coming out in the spring and they kindly sent me the fifth in the Dandy Gilver series – Dandy Gilver and the Proper Treatment of Bloodstains. Given that it has the sort of title and jacket cover that normally make me avoid a book, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I really enjoyed this book. It just goes to show not to judge a book by its cover.

It’s set in Edinburgh in 1926, when Dandy (short for Dandelion Dahlia!), a wealthy aristocrat who is also an amateur sleuth, receives a letter from Lollie Balfour asking for help as she is convinced that her husband is going to kill her. The only way Dandy can investigate is for her to go undercover as lady’s maid to Lollie. She manages to pass as a  lady’s maid (albeit an inexperienced one) with the other household servants, who with just one exception, all have stories of how horrible Mr Balfour is. And then he is found dead in his bedroom, a locked room, stabbed with ‘a long, bone-handled knife, lodged to its hilt and standing straight up out of his neck, pooled all round with blood that was almost black.’

There are plenty of suspects for his murder, including Lollie herself, and Dandy has to work out who is telling the truth. I had my suspicions quite early on but hadn’t quite foreseen the actual outcome or culprit. Even though I didn’t get it right I was on the right lines, which is pleasing and in any case I wouldn’t have liked it to be too easy to work out the puzzle.

Along with a good plot, the characters are all well defined and distinct and although at one point I thought the amount of description of the miners’ strike was just that bit too detailed, it has a great sense of time and place reflecting the mood of the 1920s during the general strike. And now I do know the proper treatment for bloodstains.

  • Hardback: 291 pages
  • Publisher:Thomas Dunne Books (2009)
  • Language English
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312654184
  • Source: the publishers

My rating 4.5/5

I wonder how I’ve managed to be totally unaware of Catriona McPherson‘s books up to now. She is a Scottish writer who now lives in Northern California. I’ll certainly read more of her books in future.