MURDER ON THE PIER (Flora Steele mystery #2)
Sussex, 1955: When bookshop owner Flora Steele goes for a walk along the pier she isn’t expecting to spot a young woman’s body in the stormy waters below. And she’s shocked to discover the victim is someone she knows…
Convinced the death was not an accident, Flora persuades attractive local crime writer Jack Carrington to help her find out what really happened to poor Polly Dakers, a popular young woman with a complicated love life, who’d been at the heart of village life in Abbeymead.
Jack is reluctant to get involved in another murder case at first but even he can’t deny that Polly’s fall seems fishy. An argument at a party, a missed hairdresser’s appointment and a red woollen bobble found on the wooden boards where Polly last stood provide a trail of clues…
As they grow closer to solving the puzzling mystery, the unlikely pair stumble upon several surprising secrets about those closest to Polly. A number of potential suspects begin to emerge. But who really disliked Polly enough to kill her? Was it Raymond, her jilted first love? Harry, her latest beau? Or Evelyn, Harry’s jealous estranged wife?
As the investigation brings them closer to the truth, Flora is intent on unmasking the killer – but will her stealthy sleuthing lead her down a dangerous path?
An utterly delightful cozy crime novel set in the fictional Sussex village of Abbeymead. Perfect for fans of Agatha Christie, Faith Martin and Joy Ellis!
Merryn’s father was a soldier and most of her childhood was spent moving from place to place, school to school, including several years living in Egypt and Germany. She loved some of the schools she attended, but hated others, so it wasn’t too surprising that she left half way through the sixth form with ‘A’ Levels unfinished.
She became a secretary, only to realise that the role wasn’t for her. Escape beckoned when she landed a job with an airline. She was determined to see as much of the rest of the world as possible, and working as cabin crew allowed her to meet a good many interesting people and enjoy some great experiences.
She still loves to travel and visit new places, especially those with an interesting history, but the arrival of marriage, children and cats meant a more settled existence on the south coast of England, where she has lived ever since. It also gave her the opportunity to go back to ‘school’ and eventually gain a PhD from the University of Sussex. For many years she taught university literature and loved every minute of it. What could be better than spending her life reading and talking about books? Well, perhaps writing them.
She had always had a desire to write, but there never seemed time to do more than dabble with the occasional short story. Gradually the critical voice in her head grew fainter and the idea that she might actually write a whole book began to take hold.
The nineteenth century was her special period of literature, so her first book had to be a Regency romance. Several novels later, she published a suspense saga set in India and wartime England during the 1930s and 40s. This was followed by some works of suspense and romance, set in Sussex during the summers of 1914 and 1944 respectively, plus a couple of standalone novels that slip in time between the Victorian period and contemporary England. Now with her foray into the world of the cozy mystery, she has really established herself as a multi-genre author.
“Whatever period, though, and whatever genre, creating new worlds and sharing them with readers gives me huge pleasure and I can’t think of a better job.”
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ABBEYMEAD, SUSSEX, LATE JANUARY 1956
“Flora Steele stood gazing at the buffet table, admiring its plentiful display but longing to be elsewhere. Anywhere, but at Bernie Mitchell’s wake – a man she’d so disliked. Tucked up in front of the fire at her cottage, perhaps or, even better, at the “All’s Well”, unpacking the latest parcel of books to arrive at her shop.
‘He was one of the best. A great chap, don’t you think?’ the man asked.
The man who’d spoken was unknown to her and standing uncomfortably close. His black funeral suit, cut a little too tightly, seemed barely to contain his six foot of muscle, and she could feel the warmth emanating from him. Desperately, she tried to edge further away but, seemingly oblivious to Flora’s discomfort, the stranger leaned across to snaffle a plate of sausage rolls, a solid column of flesh trapping her against the trestle.
Shuffling to one side, she fudged a response. ‘Any premature death is sad,’ she said.
In her opinion Bernard Mitchell hadn’t been a great chap. he was a man who’d never been out of trouble and the worst kind of husband, but his funeral was hardly the place to voice such a sentiment. She wasn’t here for Bernie Mitchell, she reminded herself. She was here for Kate, his widow, a girl she’d barely known when they’d sat in the same class at school but who, in their twenties, had become one of her very best friends.”
“They fell back in step again, turning down one of the many narrow twittens that led from the main street with Jack carefully aiming the torch at the road ahead. Despite a petition to the council, signed by most of the inhabitants, street lights had never come to Abbeymead. They were seen as contrary to rural tradition, apart from costing too much, which the villagers suspected was the real reason. The wartime blackout had meant little to Abbeymead – it was something the village lived with, before the war and since”
“Six years ago, Jack’s heart had been well and truly broken but, in fleeing back to England, he’d hoped he might leave the past behind. He’d settled in Sussex, buried himself deep in the countryside and erected a fence around a period of his life he’d no wish to remember. That had been the theory. The practice had turned out rather differently. He’d found forgetting impossible, the memories an itch he’d continually had to scratch, desperately wanting but never quite able to lose them. And every so often, that itch, that desperation, grew harder, wilder, and writing became almost impossible”
“It was, but thanks to you, I’m still in one piece. And while there’s still a mystery to solve, we need to keep going or the trail will go cold. By the time Inspector Ridley picks it up, it will be frozen”
“Her family, my father’s family, came from London. That’s where she was brought up and lived her younger years. She never liked the city, though. Said that life there felt anonymous, detached. Villages are very different. You can’t be detached in a village and somehow she felt more at home here”
“I love the way you construct an entire story out of so little. You really should be a writer, Flora”
“Each of the people we’ve listed as suspects could be guilty of one or other of these incidents. None of them could be guilty of them all. That has to mean we’re looking for another person entirely. Except, we mustn’t. We’re flailing around with no real idea who to look for, while the unknown killer knows exactly who they’re looking for. What does that say to you? To me, it says danger, pure and simple”
“Meet Flora Steele – bookshop owner, bicycle-rider, daydreamer and amateur detective!”
Whilst the technical definition of ‘Golden Age’ detective fiction, is predominantly recognised as the decades of the 1920s and 1930s, the scope of the genre can apparently also be extended to other periods and I personally think that “The Flora Steele Mysteries” whilst set in the mid 1950s, qualify for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that the village setting, with its fairly predictable mix of local characters and tradespeople, are very reminiscent of the format for the “Miss Marple” series, by best selling author Agatha Christie, despite the fact that our sleuthing duo of Jack and Flora, are considerably younger in years than the estimable Miss Marple.
The combination of bookshop owner Flora and crime writer Jack, sounds like an amateur detective partnership made in heaven, although at first glance they may not be an obvious fit, as Jack is as taciturn and considered in his approach to their unofficial investigations, as Flora is impulsive and garrulous, which often puts them somewhat at odds with each other. Having only recently solved the case of The Bookshop Murder though, it would appear that Jack and Flora are gradually coming to an understanding in their relationship which places them more on an even footing, although I suspect that Jack will always be worried about letting Flora out of his sight for too long when a new case is there to be worked, as her impetuous nature rather courts trouble and danger, which has a nasty habit of placing them both in life threatening peril, as Flora is prone to acting first and considering the consequences later.
Jack has an unofficial understanding with local police detective Alan Ridley, who is open to casting a professional eye over the more technical details behind the plots of Jack’s books, to ensure their authenticity and accuracy. However, this does nothing to endear Alan to Flora, as she considers him far too quick to try and close a case down with probable cause and with the minimum amount of inconvenience; rather than assuage any nagging suspicions of foul play, by digging around for actual cause and suspects. Somewhat reluctantly, Jack has to agree that Ridley may not always take the most thorough route to solving a crime, although he will always try to keep the officer appraised of any developments and impending sticky situations, so that he and his team can be on hand if Jack and Flora get out of their depth, as so often happens.
The couple has also come to rely more and more on the astute observation and forthright manner of Jack’s young protegee, twelve-year-old, Charlie Teague. Charlie more than has his wits about him when it comes to being in the right place at the right time to earn himself a few pennies and whilst he may be a little rough around the edges, he is big-hearted, honest and keen to please. Jack and Flora, to their utmost chagrin, have rather silenced Charlie on more than one occasion during the course of this investigation though, as his young mind, sharp as it is, is subjected to the sight of a dead body floating in the sea and a personal near death experience involving a sabotaged boat and a large expanse of fast-flowing water, when he is unable to swim. A bit of TLC and a good plateful of food, usually revives Charlie in an instant, however the couple are more than aware that his mother should be able to rely on them to take more care of her young son, when he is in their charge.
Whilst not strictly a crime of passion, this case has a complicated mix of emotions and motives and a rather large and sprawling list of suspects, which Flora and Jack are not particularly organised about eliminating and really don’t begin to narrow down too much until the very last minute, and then only when they are confronted by the real perpetrator, who wasn’t even on their list, but I have to say was on my own, although maybe not right up there at the top. To elaborate any further really would be to disclose ‘spoilers’ and give the game away, for any armchair detectives out there, so you really do need to follow in Jack and Flora’s footsteps and see where the journey leads you, or perhaps you too, will be one step ahead and egging them on towards the finish line. The only clue I’m willing to share – ‘Is blood really thicker than water?’
Murder On The Pier is my idea of a textbook story format. It has a beginning which hits the ground running and after just a few pages I knew that something bad was going to happen pretty soon. The storyline is well paced with the action almost non-stop and plenty of cleverly added twists and turns to keep me on my toes and guessing. The ending is pretty neatly tied up with no nasty loose ends left hanging, although there is a rumour that the action might be moving location in the coming episodes, unless that’s just another red herring. I also don’t like my protagonists to end up dead and thankfully Jack and Flora manage this final challenge, but only by the very skin of their teeth and after several soakings, much bruising and the physical drawing of blood. How much longer can their luck hold out before there is some serious damage done and one of them is badly, perhaps fatally hurt!
Whilst this traditional murder mystery series is fast becoming compellingly addictive and growing in depth, each episode works well as a stand alone story, with the backstory deftly woven into the narrative and dialogue without detracting from the detail of the current investigation, making for a fluid, multi-layered, well structured storyline, which is rich in atmosphere and beautifully textured. The fluent and assured writing is visually descriptive, adding a wonderful three dimensional sense of time and place, which came to life on the pages as I was reading, transporting me back in time, immersing me in the action and making me part of the village life. Author Merryn Allingham, did an excellent job of changing the pace of the action and lowering the tension, only to ramp it back up again at a moments notice, just as I started to get comfortable with my new surroundings. Perhaps my one tiny niggle would be that, whilst Brighton is a real and tangible location, the village of Abbeymead is fictional, which doesn’t sit so comfortably with my ‘nerdy’ wish to have real places so I can physically track the action.
Jack and Flora are growing in stature with each episode in this village saga, as their relationship is slowly nurtured and begins to flourish. They are however, both badly shaken up by this most recent of cases. Jack because he realises that much against his better judgement, his feelings for Flora are growing deeper by the day and he wants to protect her. He is concerned about the age difference between them and the fact that hitherto he has been quite reclusive, struggling to become part of the community, because of a past which he can’t shake off and which refuses to let him move on. He knows deep down that this is very much his own state of mind and is therefore even more confused and concerned when he realises that little by little, Flora is breaking down his self imposed wall of exile and he is being ever so subtly, forced out into the open gaze of a village which is more than willing to embrace him, if only he will unburden himself and allow them to.
Flora is genuinely rocked to her core and has had her confidence badly knocked by her recent ordeals, and she too recognises the strength of the connection which is growing between Jack and herself, although she is not quite ready to cede to his gentle ministrations, fiercely strives to maintain her independence and is confused by her feelings of jealousy, when an unwanted face from Jack’s past turns up out of the blue. Behind all her surface bravado and bubbly confidence, Flora is actually quite a fragile and vulnerable person, for whom moving to Abbeymead to live with her aunt, was an emotional salvation for the distressed child, with the bookshop affording her a real sense of belonging and purpose to her future.
Once Jack and Flora have had the closest thing they have ever had to a true heart to heart conversation, it remains to be seen if they can move on together, or will an impending shift in focus, tear them apart rather than bring them closer?
Merryn has created a multi-faceted, well drawn, developed and defined cast of supporting characters who, whether they are on the side of good or bad, are authentically realistic to the times and genuinely believable in the individual roles which have been created for them. She has then afforded them all a good strong voice, with which to tell their story and direct the course of the action, which is probably just as well, as in this rather insular small community, everyone has an opinion and a wish to be heard, but only once you can prove that you can carve a worthwhile place for yourself amongst their ranks. Not all of the characters are easy to connect with or relate to, although generally the individual dynamics and synergy between them, works quite well, so whilst they may be quite complex and emotional, sometimes unreliable and a little vulnerable; they are all compelling, addictive, vibrant and totally worth investing in.
Engaging, enjoyable, emotional, escapist entertainment! – What more can I ask from a book?
Any thoughts or comments are my own personal opinion and I am in no way being monetarily compensated for this, or any other article which promotes this book or its author.
I personally do not agree with ‘rating’ a book, as the overall experience is all a matter of personal taste, which varies from reader to reader. However some review sites do demand a rating value, so when this review is posted to such a site, it will attract a well deserved 5 out of 5 stars!