Dandy Gilver and a Bothersome Number of Corpses by Catriona McPherson is the third of the witty historical mystery series to be published in America (seventh in total), in which Dandy goes undercover at a girls' school in Scotland where schoolmistresses have a habit of disappearing (available November 19, 2013).
The setting: 1920s England. The situation: Dandy Gilver—wife, mother, and lady detective—receives a most unusual phone call from an old friend. It seems that the friend’s youngest sister, Fleur Lipscott, has taken up a position as a teacher at a remote girl’s school in Scotland and is acting most strangely.
As Fleur’s reputation is that of a wild flapper and airy dreamer, Dandy is intrigued and more than a little confused. So off she gets to Scotland to uncover the cause behind Fleur’s transformation.
But once in Portpatrick, things only get more confusing and muddled. Mistaken for a replacement teacher sent by an agency, Dandy finds herself in the middle of the mystery at St. Columba’s School for Girls. It seems several past teachers disappeared abruptly, some in the middle of the night. The remaining teachers are acting odd, and Fleur herself is almost unrecognizable and clearly terrified of something.
Then a body washes up on the nearby shore.
Fearing it might be the latest missing teacher, Dandy is shocked when Fleur suddenly confesses to killing four people—and labels this body “number five”. By the evening, Fleur has disappeared, the body remains nameless, and Dandy is left struggling to connect the scattered pieces.
Tired of straightforward mysteries that are too easily unraveled? Looking for a story with a hundred loose threads and red herrings galore? Then search no longer, for Catriona McPherson’s latest Dandy Gilver yarn offers all of this and more.
It’s certainly a story that keeps you on your toes. Every detail is a clue—or brilliant misdirection; if you’re not paying proper attention, the climatic reveal may spin you for a loop.
The cast of characters are most assuredly memorable. Apart from the typical police officers and hotel clerks you’ll find in most mysteries, there’s an utterly ditzy family of Lipscott ladies, who speak as if they live in a fairy castle in the clouds; sinister and unsettling teachers at the remote St. Columba’s School; insolent schoolgirls; a widow who’s far too nosy and disapproving for her own good; and a larger than life Italian restaurateur, who runs the local fish ‘n chips shop and has a wayward wife:
‘So,’ he said. ‘I am a bad husband, working and working and never a rose, never a song, never a dance in the moonlight for my lovely wife. Not since her birthday, February, have we danced together in an empty room.’ I took in my stride this hint about the home life of the Aldos and its distance and different nature from my own. ‘And someone saw her, her beautiful black hair and her eyes like rubies. Ah! No–sapphires. And her cheeks like peaches in the evening. I can’t tell you in English how beautiful is my wife. If you spoke my language . . .’ He decided, apparently, to try it anyway and spent the next minute regaling us about the many wondrous charms of his wife in swooping, elated Italian of which we understood nothing except–in my case–the oft-repeated ‘-issima’s, which gave one the distinct impression that he really meant it.
Then there’s Dandy herself, our narrator and heroine. She’s firm and no-nonsense and doesn’t hesitate to spin a few falsehoods or go undercover to get to the bottom of things. And while she has a husband back home and two sons almost grown, she’s also unafraid—in spite of society’s wagging tongues—to run off to remote seaside towns with her detecting partner and good friend Alec Osborne, who’s an incorrigible scamp and very fond of his food.
Nearly everything described is vibrant to the point of being tangible. The gray and windy Scottish cliffs. The sparse school with its metal radiators and bare wooden floors. Aldo’s shop with its patina of grease, smelling of fish. And the Lipscott’s fairy kingdom:
The roses were blooming, tumbling and scrambling all over the pillars of the verandah, and the path was carpeted with their petals. The lawns, their nap like velvet, rolled away to the edge of the trees and the marks from the gardener’s broom brushing off the dew could be seen in swathes. The pink-painted stone of the house was, as it had always been in early-morning sun, like the inside cheek of a seashell, blushed with peach; and at the windows, already open for the day, cream linen billowed out like the train of a wedding gown so that it seemed the house was waving a welcome at us as we slowed and stopped at the front door.
McPherson knows how to keep the reader strategically unbalanced, careening around each new curve as the story twists and turns, so that the next revelation catapults you off your footing. This is definitely a story that is best read in one or two marathon runs, so that the pace will leave you breathless. And when you finally cross the finish line, it’ll be with satisfaction for a job well done: every seemingly unconnected thread is skillfully drawn together by the last page, with a resolution that is unexpected but still logical.
Dandy Gilver is a lady who defies convention and most labels; a walk with her along the stormy cliffs of Scotland is just what this colder winter weather calls for.
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Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. You can find her at Livejournal.com under the handle “zombres.”
Read all posts by Angie Barry at Criminal Element.