THE BOOKSHOP MURDER – (Flora Steele #1)
Bookshop owner Flora Steele escapes the sleepy English village of Abbeymead through the adventures in the stories she sells. Until one morning, everything changes when she discovers a body amongst her own bookshelves…
The young man with the shock of white-blond hair lay spread-eagled on the floor, surrounded by fallen books. His hand reached out to the scattered pages, as though he was trying to tell her something.
But who is he? How did he come to be killed in Flora’s ordinary little bookshop? Flora finds out he was staying at the Priory Hotel, and when the gardener suddenly dies in its beautiful grounds only a few days later, she is certain that something untoward is happening in her quiet village by the sea.
But are the two deaths connected? And is someone at the hotel responsible – the nervous cook, the money-obsessed receptionist, or the formidable manageress?
Determined to save her beloved bookshop’s reputation and solve the murder mystery, Flora enlists the help of handsome and brooding Jack Carrington: crime writer, recluse and her most reliable customer.
As the unlikely duo set about investigating the baffling case, guilty faces greet them at every door. And they soon realise there’s more than one person hiding secrets in Abbeymead…
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, 1955
“Locking the shop door carefully behind her, Flora heaved the last parcel of books into the basket. Betty wasn’t the most beautiful of bikes but she was functional, her wide wicker tray already filled to overflowing. Time for the Friday evening chore they both hated. It was Aunt Violet who had begun a regular delivery slot from the All’s Well bookshop several years ago. A community service, she’d told her niece. Some of the old dears find it difficult to carry even one book home from the village. The problem was that the number of old dears had increased rapidly and there was barely a week now that Flora wasn’t packing the bike to its maximum and labouring her way through Abbeymead and its surrounding lanes”
“But Lord Templeton was gone and so was dear Aunt Violet. And so, Flora thought sadly, was her chance of escape. Her chance to leave the narrow life of Abbeymead and walk out into the world beyond”
“The bookshop had been a haven since she was so high, but now it felt violated and she worried that she might never feel comfortable there again”
“People didn’t speak of the war, particularly men who had fought their way across Europe. They barely mentioned what had happened to them in those long years of struggle. No one did, really. It was as though a huge schism had broken the country apart – a second appalling conflagration within thirty years – and everyone was now silently trying to knit the edges together”
“He wanted to put his arms around her and hug her tight, but common sense told him that would be stupid and common sense triumphed”
“From my research, I’d say that if a murderer is successful with the first killing, most often he or she will use the same method for any others they plan”
“Yet the excitement in edging closer to the truth was undeniable, and for the first time in many years, he had a strong sense of living in the world rather than through the characters he created”
“There’s more than one person hiding secrets in Abbeymead…”
Whilst the period of the ‘Golden Age’ of detective fiction, is recognised as encompassing predominantly the decades of the 1920s and 1930s, the scope of the genre can also be extended to other decades and I personally think that The Bookshop Murder, whilst set in 1955, is good to qualify for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that Flora mentions in passing, having recently had a very successful window display of books in her shop, by the best selling author Agatha Christie! Mind you, given that I was born a mere three years after bookshop owner, Flora Steele’s first foray into the world of amateur sleuthing, I’m not so sure that I am ready to think of myself as ‘Golden Age’!
I usually hope for four key elements to make that storyline just perfect: A beginning which gets right to the heart of things; a storyline which is well paced, seamless and fluid; an ending which is conclusive and ties up all those nasty little loose ends; and a protagonist who can’t be dead. The Bookshop Murder is textbook perfect in every way, although Flora does only manage to stay alive by the skin of her teeth and with a little help from a youngster who, luckily for her, is far too observant for his own good!
From my perspective, the combination of a bookshop owner and a crime fiction author, is an ideal combination for an amateur sleuthing team and after a few minor teething problems, Flora and Jack are beginning to gel quite nicely together. A rather taciturn, considered and reclusive Jack, is the perfect foil for Flora’s rather open, garrulous and impulsive nature. In fact, at times it was Flora who took the lead in their very unofficial investigation, making the storyline feel much more grounded in the present times of equality, than it actually was.
When a rather uncooperative police force don’t consider it necessary to investigate a couple of seemingly unrelated sudden deaths, in this small Sussex village, Flora feels compelled to step in and check things out for herself, as the effects of finding a dead body in her bookshop has rather ‘killed’ her custom! Poor Jack is drawn into Freya’s plans rather unwittingly and definitely against his better judgement, but actually discovers that he quite enjoys the notion of being involved in a crime, rather than writing about one. Still recovering from something of a broken heart, Jack also fights hard to resist the naive charms of a much younger Flora, but he fails dismally and has to cede to the mutual attraction he knows is blossoming between them.
They do say that ‘money is the root of all evil’ and that certainly seems to be the case as Flora and Jack finally unmask their gold-digging, treasure seeker, although the carnage this cold and calculating person leaves in their wake, together with the unnecessary loss of life, makes this a heinous crime in the truest sense of the word, especially as a forceful Flora is destined to be yet another of their ‘collateral damage’ statistics.
This multi-layered storyline, has been skilfully structured and executed with consummate ease and confidence, by an author who knows exactly in which direction she wants to take her readers and how she would like them to engage with her characters along the way. The narrative is lovely and textured and with some well placed added visual imagery to the words, Merryn has created a story which is rich in atmosphere, offers a real sense of time and place, putting the reader front and centre of the action and completely at ease. There are also one or two lighter, more playful interludes of interaction between Jack and Flora, which Merryn treats in a beautifully relaxed manner, whilst being able to ramp up the action again at a moments notice.
Merryn has created a multi-faceted, well drawn and defined cast of 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. Drawn from a diverse cross-section of society, they are relatable and easy to connect with, with some excellent dynamics and synergy ensuing between them. Although naturally, you have to pass the all important ‘do you fit into the community?’ test and be prepared to have your lifestyle examined to the nth degree first. The characters have then been given a strong enough voice, that they are able to direct and guide the storyline, with just the gentlest of author nudges every now and then. Jack and Flora made a great team within the wider community, balancing each other out, as they played to their individual strengths, and worked their way logically through all the possibilities of the case, which was well grounded in the facts of history, never making it too far-fetched.
The scope of my reading generally covers all the ‘e’ words, so for The Bookshop Murder, that would definitely include: Engagement; Enjoyment; Entertainment; Escapism and Emotion.
I can’t wait for the next book in this series. There are a couple of different paths the next storyline could take for Flora and Jack, and I need to know which one each of them chooses, whilst hoping that it will be the same one, as they became an addictive tour de force!
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!