There is a lot to recommend Catriona McPherson’s stylish detective series featuring Dandy Gilver, the wealthy wife of a Scottish landowner who runs private investigations in the interwar years. The historical detail is pin sharp and, as in true murder cases, it is the mundanities of everyday life which investigations throw up which evoke the age, rather than any evolution in the criminal dispatching of one’s fellow humans.
In this novel, the 15th in the series but – like the rest – a standalone story, the search takes us behind the scenes of both the publishing industry and the theatre, both struggling in their own way, as they are now. Dandy and her charismatic partner, Alec Osbourne, are asked to intervene in a copyright dispute – a travelling puppeteer is reported to be using characters from a local publishing house’s children’s comic. But events take a much more serious turn in a murder that is spectacular and shocking.
As Dandy sits among families on deckchairs watching the Punch and Judy show in Dundee’s Dudhope Park on a bank holiday Monday, the puppets suddenly freeze. On her investigation the puppeteer is found slumped in his tent, his throat cut, with none of the audience having seen anyone else enter or leave. As the police inspector charged with investigating the crime describes it, it is an impossible murder with an invisible assailant.
The story takes on further twists. An identical murder of a puppeteer happened at the same spot exactly 50 years before. The publisher of the comic finds puppets and scrawled messages in their office, as do their larger and more successful rivals, DC Thomson.
Fans of the series will also be intrigued to the changes afoot in Dandy and Alec’s relationship. He is courting a very suitable young lady, which threatens to unsettle their cosy but unconsummated and unspoken closeness. Dandy’s husband Hugh alludes to the relationship, causing a frostiness between husband and wife.
But the real joy of the novel is the characters and how they cope with a fast-changing society. The class strictures are ever present, and the upper class members of the team are allowed access and demand responses that wouldn’t be possible without their cut-glass accents and sharp tailoring.
Dandy muses that the family’s old retainers, their butler, chauffeur and cook, will probably be the last to serve them for life. All have a very firm grasp of their place in life and a pride in their work. Grant, her lady’s maid, is a new breed of clever, ambitious working woman, bumptious and determined to be as involved in investigations as in the alterations of her mistress’s wardrobe.
McPherson is clearly a stickler for research. When the investigating duo need to find a newspaper from the day before, they order fish and chips from Delnevo’s, a Dundee institution by the 1930s, and the puppeteer has no crocodile or sausages alongside Punch and Judy, but the altogether more sinister, and traditional, Scaramouche.
She is particularly good at summoning smells. Dandy says of the odour present backstage in a struggling theatre: “Hair tonic and face paint, that sweet combination of powder and grease only multiplied a hundredfold... it did not hide the rank odour of hot human bodies working hard and wearing the same costumes night after night. Unspeakable.”
There follows a discussion on the etiquette of holding one’s nose – whether to adopt a pinch or the more ladylike but less effective finger used as a moustache.
Previously in the series, Dandy has been found in the more conventional settings – for murder mysteries – of country house shooting weekends, aristocratic ballrooms and private estates. Her excursion into the underbelly of Dundee is no less riveting.
The Mirror Dance, by Catriona McPherson, Hodder & Stoughton, 278pp, £21.99
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