I’ve never been one for “cosy crime” novels, usually finding them overly whimsical, but my interest was piqued by the idea of one inspired by Muriel Spark’s The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie. Linking a debut novel with an icon of the Scottish literary canon is a bold move, after all, and it’s not immediately obvious how something as spiky and complex as Spark’s work could inspire something more straightforward and comfortable.
Miss Blaine’s Prefect And The Golden Samovar begins in 19th century Russia where Shona McMonagle – Edinburgh librarian and time-traveller – has landed in the middle of a grand party, and is teaching reels to the guests. It’s not until she is safely away from the festivities and exploring her new home that the reader can draw breath and digest the boldness of the opening – at which point we step back into the 21st century, to Morningside Library, and Shona’s introduction to one Marcia Blaine, girls’ school founder (motto: Cremor Cremoris – yes, you guessed it) and also a time traveller, after a conversation about The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie that crams in so many allusions I thought Olga Wojtas must have used a crowbar.
Back in Russia, Shona puzzles over how to fulfil her mission – she has been given no instructions, but is sure that it must involve getting Lidia Ivanovna married off to the enigmatic Sasha despite the interference of Lidia’s knitting-obsessed Nanny. We then attend another sumptuous party and a Scottish high tea, both of which come with a hefty dose of Jane Austen stylings and Stella Gibbons satirical wit.
Having learned of a series of unfortunate deaths of wealthy widows during the gossipy tea party, our heroine nearly comes a cropper herself, saved only by her coachman. Another attempt on Shona’s life is made while she is witnessing a duel, and yet another comes on a visit to the country home of the count and countess who are introducing Sasha to Russian society. Despite her self-professed genius at everything from martial arts to mathematics, however, Shona is slow indeed to see who the architect of all this trouble is.
Unfortunately, the lightness of touch which characterises the beginning of the book isn’t backed up with much in the way of character development (Shona is amusingly drawn, but minor characters are mostly reduced to one trait, from Nanny’s knitting to the coachman’s painting) and the narrative sags about two-thirds of the way through, before a rush to the finish in a whirl of dastardly deeds and denouements.
The Spark homage is cleverly done, but anyone looking for the needling tone of The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie won’t find it here. Like a sliver of sponge cake on a dainty tea plate, Miss Blaine’s Prefect… is light, fluffy, sweet and delightfully insubstantial, and I’m sure it will find its audience. As Jean Brodie says: “For those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like.”
Miss Blaine’s Prefect And The Golden Samovar, by Olga Wojtas, by Olga Wojtas, Contraband, £8.99