Wednesday, 11 November 1998

Veronica Stallwood: Oxford Mourning (1995)

Edition: Macmillan, 1995
Review number: 164

Oxford Mourning is the third of Veronica Stallwood's series featuring the novelist detective Kate Ivory - it is strange that so many crime novelists write about novelists as detectives. In this novel, Kate is writing a lurid historical romance about Oxford butcher's wife Maria Susanna Taylor (whose sister was Charles Dickens' mistress and may have had an illegitimate child by him). When she discovers that new material on this subject - letters between the sisters - has been discovered and is being investigated by an Oxford academic, she attempts to gain an introduction to Dr Olivia Blackett through her on-off lover, Liam Ross, music tutor at the same college.

When, repulsed by Blackett, Kate sneaks into her rooms to see - and remove - some of the letters, she witnesses from behind a door a massive argument between Liam and Olivia, with whom he clearly has a far closer relationship than he let on to Kate. Kate also meets a young woman named Angel, clearly rather unstable, who has an obsession with Leicester College and Dr Blackett. When Blackett is discovered murdered later that day, Kate finds herself in a position where she is the only person who knows about all the threads which came together on the day of the murder (though there is much about each of them which she doesn't yet know).

Oxford Mourning suffers even more than most crime novels from unbelievable coincidences - the complications to a plot made necessary by supporting a puzzle of sufficient difficulty make them a ubiquitous weakness of the genre. The fact that Kate and Olivia have two unsuspected connections (in their working interests and Liam), and that these form part of their lives at the same time is one; the way that all this drama happens on one day is another. In both these cases, a little bit of extra work could have removed the incredible nature of these events, by making the day significant for another reason which made it natural for the unconnected events to happen then, and by separating Liam's love affairs in time, for example.

In fact, Oxford Mourning shows signs of lazy writing throughout. Angel and her homeless friends, for example, are a group of stereotypical homeless people: the mentally disturbed, the amoral hustler, the alcoholic from a posh background and so on. Another revision would have immensely improved this book, as it does at least also show signs that Stallwood can do better - the character of Kate is well drawn.

No comments: