I came across Frances Brody on Tales from the Reading Room a couple of weeks’ ago, and had an inkling she might offer a welcome spot of light relief. I’ve raced through Death of an Avid Reader over the past few days – it was just what I hoped it would be; a cosy, pleasurable whodunnit with some splendid characters.
This is one of the most recent novels in an established series, but Brody gets you up to speed quickly, and with ease. Kate Shackleton is our heroine: a former VAD Nurse who lost her husband during the First World War, she now works as a private detective in Leeds with her stalwart friend Mr Sykes. As the novel opens, Kate is asked by one Lady Coulton to track down her daughter, Sophia, born out of wedlock many years ago and raised by the younger sister of Lady Coulton’s nanny. Lady Coulton had received sporadic updates about her child, until they stopped in 1911 – all she knows is that Sophia was raised in Scarborough, and that her adoptive parents were fishmongers.
The plot thickens when Kate is then asked to attend a blessing at Leeds Library, where she is a respected member of the board – apparently the basement has been the victim of hauntings for many years, and the deputy librarian has summoned a local priest to rid the place of any evil spirits. When Kate heads to the library to meet the the chosen priest on a cold, miserable night, she stumbles across the body of her friend, Dr. Horatio Potter, sprawled in the basement beneath a pile of books. Her search for Sophia becomes embroiled in the ensuing murder investigation, and the story swiftly becomes populated with thieves, lawyers, academics, missing girls, and, naturally, a monkey.
The novel gallops along at an enjoyable pace, and the characterisations and visual details are excellent – “She bustled towards me, being a person who walks like a crowd, dangerously swinging her string bag full of borrowed books into the thigh of a passing businessman.” It doesn’t quite have the nail-biting denouement of an Agatha Christie, or the wonderful, period madness of Gladys Mitchell, but still, I found myself returning to Kate’s quest eagerly at the end of each day. It is, essentially, a very comfortable book – the novel equivalent of sitting by a roaring fire with a buttered crumpet. And that’s not to detract from the skilful plotting – Brody links the two mysteries superbly. The true test, I suppose, is that I’ve just ordered the next book in the series: I very much look forward to following Kate on another adventure soon.