Never Laugh as a Hearse Goes By is the fifth book featuring Welsh salon owner and amateur detective Penny Brannigan, who's facing murder at a clerical conference (available October 29, 2013).
Elizabeth J. Duncan's series of books featuring Penny Brannigan have garnered awards and attracted legions of fans. Never Laugh as a Hearse Goes By is the fifth to feature the Canadian ex-pat manicurist and amateur sleuth Penny—and the first time I've made her acquaintance.
This book is the epitome of cozy and will definitely appeal to lovers of the genre. The stories may be set very much in the here and now, but they owe a great debt of gratitude to Agatha Christie and her creation, Miss Marple.
Penny lives in North Wales, in the fictional market town of Llanelen, where she co-owns the Spa, an extremely popular beautician's business. She is a talented artist, and also spends her time beautifying the nails of a range of local clients—that is, when she isn't getting herself inextricably involved in solving crime.
It helps that Penny's squeeze is the local police DCI, Gareth Davies, but surely he must get a bit fed up with her stealing his thunder? The pair have an on-off relationship, with Gareth the most committed, it seems—as summed up by her friend, and Gareth's colleague, Bethan.
Bethan stood up. She knew Davies had been trying for some time to find the right time and the right place to spend a few days on a break with Penny, but something always got in the way of their plans. But it struck her as odd that Penny had been the one to ask him to go away.
The two had been seeing each other since last summer, but Bethan felt the relationship was tilted emotionally in Penny’s favour – that Davies’s strong feelings for her were not returned with the same intensity. She’s just not that into him, was the way Bethan put it. Or maybe she’s just holding back, for some reason. Oh well, nothing to do with her. Leave them to it and she hoped they’d enjoy themselves. There was always plenty to do around the station to keep her busy.
The romance provides a great side dish to the main course of murder—two murders, to be precise, which both occur at Gladstone's Library—a real place in Hawarden, Flintshire. It's an inspired choice for a murder scene, and adds another neat dimension to the story. The descriptions of the place make you want to pack a bag and leave NOW.
There's a scene where Penny visits the library itself, and it perfectly conveys the historic atmosphere of the place:
"...the ecclesiastical look and atmosphere complemented perfectly the subject matter of the books. She decided to climb the stairs to the upper level, and made her ascent on the narrow, well lit, spiral staircase holding the stout rope handrail. The upper level was filled with tall bookshelves in a warm, medium brown oak, arranged not in straight lines, but in clusters of niches and alcoves. Interspersed amongst the group of shelves strategically placed beside leaded windows to catch the light, were reading tables, each with a gooseneck brass lamp with an opaque glass shade.
Penny paused in front of a shelf in the history of the church section and moved on. She pulled a small volume in dark green leather with raised bands on the spine cover off the shelf and opened it. Entitled Baxter’s Works, volume 8, it displayed a W. E. Gladstone bookplate on the front inside endpaper. This must be one of the original Gladstone books, she thought, admiring the colourful swirling pattern in bright yellow, red, and blue on the endpaper that carried over as marbled edges of the text block. She sighed and replaced it on the shelf.
Gladstone's Library is treated almost as a character, but there are many more arresting (and eventually, arrested) folk who populate the pages of this personable novel. My own favourites are Mrs. Lloyd and her companion Florence Semble. Mrs. L. is the village busybody, and long-suffering Florence is her perfect foil. Together they make a most entertaining double-act, and when Florence's skills as a shorthand reader are called upon, Mrs. Lloyd tags along for the ride.
Florence rested her hand on the banister, one foot on the first stair.
“A woman’s died in what they call suspicious circumstances. She left a notebook, but it’s written in shorthand. They need me to translate it for them. And,” she added proudly, “although I would be happy to do it as the good civic-minded citizen I am, they’re going to pay me. It’s considered translation. A professional service.”
Mrs. Lloyd folded her hands in front of her. In a recent television documentary she had seen the Queen working in her office, wearing a simple, tailored dress with a brooch on the left shoulder and black shoes with low heels. Thinking the outfit exactly what a lady should wear at home in the daytime, Mrs. Lloyd had adopted the same look. Her dress was a burgundy wool and her brooch was an ornate, swirling flower made up of pink and red stones.
“Now when they said come at once, Florence, do they mean to send a car for you?”
“No. I’m to take the train to Chester, letting them know which train I’m on, and they’ll send a car to the station to meet me.”
“Us,” said Mrs. Lloyd firmly. “They’ll send a car to meet us.”
An entertaining read for anyone who loves a 'body in the library' style mystery. It is lightly-drawn, well-plotted and has plenty to keep the reader interested.
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Sandra Mangan recently moved to Blackpool, a seaside resort in the north west of England, to a new home that is definitely a work in progress. She is an avid reader, with crime fiction at the top of her wish list—though an occasional Nora Roberts manages to creep onto the bookshelf. You can also follow her on Twitter as @OfTheTimesShop.