Friday, 1 June 2012

'The Tale of Holly How' by Susan Wittig Albert

I just read the second in this Cosy Mystery series by Susan Wittig Albert and I adored it. The series takes place in the early twentieth century, near Hawkshead in the Lake District - and amongst its cast of characters of farming folk, villagers and talking animals is the classic children's author, Beatrix Potter.

Now, this ought to be twee as the twee-est thing in the world. Cosies are almost always slightly twee - that's the point, I think. And I happen to like a little tweeness in my murder mysteries - as long as there is a touch of acid in there, too, to offset the sweetness. And that's very true of these 'Beatrix Potter Investigates' books - there is a very dry wit at work.

Besides the human cast of ladies, paid companions, school teachers, farmhands and housekeepers - there is a parallel cast of anthropomorphised animals. Beatrix arrives at her beloved Hill Top Farm with her own animals, who she names and talks to - but she never hears (or never expects to hear) - word back from them. Yet the reader does. We slip sideways into a parallel world where her cats and horses and rats give lots of backchat and crucial clues - always in italics. And, in this volume, we visit the Brockery, where the aged Bosworth Badger watches over the countryside and operates a kind of halfway home for waifs and strays out of his sett. He has age-old furniture and is dressed up like an Edwardian gent - exactly like someone out of a Beatrix Potter tale. But Beatrix and the others are seemingly unaware of this secret world of the wildlife around them - and there's a delicious irony in that. (As there is when we hear of Bosworth's correspondence with his gruff relative in the distant Wild Wood...!)

Beatrix is intuitively in tune with the animals, of course - and that's apparent in the lovely sub-plot to do with Tuppeny the Guinea pig, who goes missing, and turns up incongruously during the Great Raid by the police and all the animals on an illegal badger-baiting. Tuppenny's characterisation is one of the triumphs in a book that absolutely teems with brilliant character moments.

There is brutal murder and an amateur investigation, an attempted poisoning and dark deeds afoot - but there's also lots of lovely nature - and gossip - and historical detail - and a genuine warmth and affection for the time and the people. I love this series, and I'm delighted to find the author has written one per year since 2004. I really hope there's a wintry and a Christmassy one coming up in the list!

Reading this has made me think of the other Cosy mystery series i love - and that it's about time that I got back to them. Rita Lakin's 'Gladdy Gold' series, and Elizabeth Peters' 'Amelia Peabody' and Nancy Atherton's 'Aunty Dimity.' They are endless, of course - and that's one of the great things about them.

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