I do love the odd cozy mystery, but I’ve found more than a few times that cozies tend to struggle from a sort of narrative insularity. Because every character is ostensibly a suspect, they typically have a narrow cast list, and these individuals are usually linked together in some way. This can have a stifling affect on both plot and character, and I’ve read several cozies that have suffered as a result. Unfortunately, Jill Paterson’s debut The Celtic Dagger is one of these.
The opening is something straight out of Cluedo: academic Alex Wearing is found dead in his study courtesy of a priceless historic artefact. But it certainly wasn’t the butler whodunnit, and it’s not long before the finger of blame is pointed at just about everyone with whom Wearing has come into contact with–including, of course, his brother James. James is intent on clearing his name, and embarks on an investigation into his dead brother’s past, only to find that both his brother, and a number of their acquaintances, have more than a few skeletons hidden away in their academic broom cupboards.
At a glance, The Celtic Dagger sounds like just the sort of mystery that would endear itself to me and my decidedly nerdy leanings: it features scholarship, ancient artefacts, and much of it is set in the suburb in which I live. But while superficially seeming like a promising read, this slim tone is beset by flaws. The first of which, and that which perhaps prevented me from getting into the book to any substantial degree, is the utter absence of setting. Characters eat in restaurants. They walk along streets. They sit in rooms. There’s very little sense of place, and this detracts terribly from the novel as a whole. There’s a strange sense of this book being a relic of Agatha Christie’s time or somesuch: though published only a year or two ago, it just feels so very old. There’s a scene in which a character books a flight at the airport rather than online or at least over the phone, and other characters travel to see each other in person for conversations that could just as easily have been handled in a text message. (And just to be finicky, my suburb is characterised very strangely, with all of the wrong types of buildings referenced, and shops situated in the wrong places). The entire book feels weirdly anachronistic, a fact that’s only made worse by the lack of a grounding milieu.
Moreover, the very characters themselves struggle to come to life. Reading this, I found just about everyone was interchangeable, and I found myself backtracking trying to remember which character was which, and how they related to the plot or the other characters (as no doubt you’ve realised by the fact that I’ve only named three characters in this whole review). Fitzjohn the “gumshoe”, for example, is your typically brusquely spoken noir cop, and fails to stand out in any way. This is in part because of the dialogue: while admittedly just about everyone in this book is an academic, they speak like it, too. (And goodness, let’s not even get started on those creepy love interest scenes.) Without the attributions I would’ve struggled to make head or tail of who was speaking, and given the lack of setting, I had the weird sense of the dialogue somehow just floating in the air, with nary a person about to speak it.
As alluded to earlier, another key flaw with The Celtic Dagger is that its characters are more closely knitted together than my first attempt at a row of purl. The characters in this volume are so insular that it’s almost incestuous. The neatness with which all of the events, both past and present, tie together is disappointing, and I think the novel would have benefited from a little messiness or a few loose ends. Moreover, the very development of the plot is rests so heavily on narrative cliches that it’s difficult to take seriously. While cozies are often popular for the very fact that they adhere to a strict formula, this one clings to heavily to it that it grates.
Admittedly, this is a first novel, and the author no doubt has plenty of years to hone her skills. But I’m afraid that for me, this one was disappointment, and one that I struggled to finish.
Rating: (serious flaws)
With thanks to NewHolland Books for the review copy.
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