Book Review: Dandy Gilver and an Unsuitable Day for a Murder

DANDY GILVER AND AN UNSUITABLE DAY FOR A MURDERCatriona McPhersonHodder and Stoughton, £19.99

IN THE well-stocked library of a sunny Californian University, a dedicated researcher is undoubtedly hard at work writing a PhD on the impact which the end of domestic service had on the plots of British detective novels.

The arrival of the washing machine and the compact suburban semi may have improved the lot of the middle-class housewife, but it robbed fictional detectives of some of the most important tools of their trade. No more nervous maids to be questioned in drawing rooms, no more of the observant butlers who could always be relied upon to drop broad plot hints for the benefit of wily readers.

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Before this little-marked sociological watershed, the detective novel traditionally climaxed with all the guests at a country house congregating in the living room to be interrogated by an eccentric but annoyingly perceptive amateur sleuth. After the domestic help were given their marching orders, the gritty police procedural reigned and professional policemen stamped over everything with their size nines.

Luckily for those readers who prefer their detective fiction to come from the Golden Age rather than the Handcuff Age, a growing band of contemporary detective writers are revisiting the style and conventions of the 1920s, and, often with their tongues firmly in their cheeks, using it to pastiche and gently critique the form.

In Catriona McPherson's Dandy Gilver series it is always, in George Orwell's phrase, Sunday afternoon, preferably before the war. In a loosely connected series of novels which walks this side - just - of the parodic, her lady detective, released from an unrewarding life as wife and mother, takes on a series of cases and solves them with panache.

Dandy is an independently minded woman of the upper middle classes who makes her own rebellions against the expectations of the world, and especially, her mother-in-law. There is enough of the modern about Dandy for 21st-century readers to identify with her, and enough of the language, fashions and conventions of the past to wallow in.

Pleasingly, the settings are small-town Scotland rather than English country house, and McPherson shines an enjoyable light at the pretensions of the genteel Scottish middle classes. In the new novel, Dandy Gilver And An Unsuitable Day For A Murder, the setting is Dunfermline, where two warring families run rival department stores.

Dandy is brought in to investigate the disappearance of the heiress to Aitken's Emporium: Tailors, Mantle-Makers, Silk-Merchants and Domestic Bazaar. Before long she has ventured deep into the treacherous social minefield of Dunfermline "society," and is uncovering the deep, and disturbing connections between the Aitkens and the Hepburns.

The journey takes her through enough dotty dowagers and supercilious butlers to keep any fan of Dorothy L Sayers and Josephine Tey entertained, and the two department stores with their silks, hats and haberdashery departments, and subtle social distinctions, afford much comedy.

But the novel is also a critique of the self-delusion of the Scottish mercantile middle classes. The Montagues and Capulets of Dunfermline are as snobbish as any of the nasty families in Agatha Christie, and the dialogue, while arch, skewers their pretensions beautifully.

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As a fictional creation, Dandy is probably more class conscious than she would have been in real life, but this does allow McPherson to venture below stairs as much as above them, and, yes, interrogate the kitchen maids.

The period features are done with aplomb, the dialogue shines with Golden Age wit, and McPherson's heroine is warm and sharp as well as ingenious at solving the mysteries she is presented with. If there is a criticism of this enjoyable read, it is that on occasion the creaky plot seems less a knowing joke and more a structural weakness. But Dandy Gilver's growing band of fans are unlikely to care much about that.

This article was first published in the Scotland on Sunday on December 5, 2010