Book Review: Murder at the Castle by M. B. Shaw

Murder at the Castle by M. B. Shaw is the second book in the Iris Grey Mysteries, where painter and amateur sleuth Iris Grey enters a world of buried secrets, village gossip, family feuds, and murder. 

Famed portrait painter and notorious amateur sleuth Iris Grey has just arrived in Scotland on a commission to paint a wealthy patron’s far younger bride-to-be. Jock MacKinnon is the Baron of Pitfeldy Castle and rather prickly, in Iris’s opinion, but softens considerably in the presence of his gorgeous American fiancee, Kathy Miller. Unfortunately, he seems to be the only inhabitant of Pitfeldy who likes the newcomer, whose unhappiness over not being allowed to recite her own vows in a church wedding has resulted in Jock barring the church and its vicar from holding their annual fundraising fete on castle grounds, much to the villagers’ consternation. And that’s even before considering the feelings of the wife he threw over for Kathy and the adult children he doesn’t particularly care for either.

It’s into this nest of vipers that Iris unwittingly steps, having blocked off three months from her calendar to work on her subject while living in Pitfeldy. On the plus side, Iris finds Kathy to be much less malevolent than the villagers have described. While Kathy certainly has her determined side, she’s really kind of a hippie, telling Iris over family dinner:

‘Our modern obsession with material things has become such a burden. The lighter our loads, the lighter our hearts, that’s my motto.’

 

‘And the lighter Pa’s wallet, since he met you,’ Rory muttered in a deliberately audible sotto voce.

 

‘Sorry, Rory, what was that?’ Kathy asked guilelessly. ‘You really must speak up.’ Turning to Iris, she said, ‘The British upper classes are terrible mumblers, don’t you find? I can never understand half of what they’re saying.’

 

‘It’s an acquired skill,’ Iris agreed, tactfully.

Iris and Kathy become fast friends as the portrait sitting progresses, in no small part due to Kathy’s isolation at the castle. Kathy doesn’t have anyone else to confide in regarding the anonymous threatening letters she’s been receiving but feels safe trusting Iris with the information and asking for her assistance. After all, Iris helped solve the mystery of a famous author’s death after being commissioned to paint his portrait. Surely, she can easily get to the bottom of a much less serious poison pen inquiry?

Being no fool, Iris’s first instinct is to go to the police. Kathy, however, is adamant that Jock not find out about the letters. Iris reluctantly accedes, but when she and Kathy stumble across two skeletons near Pitfeldy Castle’s abandoned bothy, she begins to worry that going to the police might be the only way to protect her new friend.

Fortunately, the Detective Inspector in charge of the skeleton case is on the same wavelength as Iris is, taking her concerns seriously even as a small media frenzy erupts over the discovery of the Girls in the Woods, as the remains are quickly dubbed. DI Stuart Haley is an unprepossessing man who’s been poleaxed by tragedy, but he’s committed to both doing his job and to finding justice for victims, no matter the opinion of anyone else. This becomes more relevant as the case wears on, and the possibility that the skeletons might belong to undocumented migrant sex workers becomes more likely.

It had always saddened Haley that the public tended to lose interest in murder cases once it emerged that the victims were sex workers.

 

Or perhaps it wasn’t interest they lost so much as sympathy. It was the same story with addicts. As if falling prey to heroin or being driven to sell one’s body for a living made someone less of a person. Stuart Haley certainly didn’t share this view. But plenty of his colleagues did. If the Girls in the Wood did turn out to have been prostitutes, he knew he would have to fight even harder for resources and access than he was doing now.

As Iris and Haley team up to unravel the mystery, they find themselves beset by obstacles put in their paths by people who don’t want the truth to come out. It will take all of their sleuthing and empathy combined to figure out what happened to the dead women—and if their deaths have any bearing on the threats being made to a woman still very much alive.

Blending keenly observed humor with a clever mystery that has Iris traveling farther afield than usual in pursuit of leads, Murder at the Castle was even more enjoyable than its predecessor in the series, Murder at the Mill. I loved how Iris’s large heart held room for so many of these deeply flawed people who are, for the most part, just doing their best to love and be loved—even if I didn’t have nearly as much sympathy myself for several of the characters, including Jock, who’s the epitome of entitled male gentry. Iris herself is such a terrific heroine: smart but very human and with relatable love-life dilemmas of her own. I do love how this series seems to be getting better with each book and am so looking forward to reading the next one already!

Check out Doreen Sheridan’s review of the first in the series, Murder at the Mill!

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