Tuesday, 15 June 1999

Susan Coffey: Murder in a Cathedral City (1995)

Edition: Ironside, 1995
Review number: 273

Susan Coffey's Victorian-set crime novel has a rather unusual heroine. (I would say "surprising" were it not for the fact that her identity is given away on the back cover.) Given the name Agnes Bell, she is in fact clearly based on Anne Bronte. (Bell is of course the surname of the male pseudonyms used by the Bronte sisters to get their novels published.) She is a prim, demure yet intelligent and observant young governess working for an unpleasant nouveau riche family in Churchfield, a small cathedral city in the Midlands (based on Lichfield). When a man is killed just outside the town, she becomes interested, because the murderer was almost certainly one of the people staying in her employer's house that night.

Entertainingly written, Murder in a Cathedral City has several points in its favour. It conveys a good sense of the 1830s, and has clearly had a fair amount of research put into it. The central character is convincing, and it quite an unusual idea to write your book around a central character out of the situations in which she really found herself. Most historical novels are fairly strongly biographical (like Jean Plaidy) or keep the real characters relatively ephemeral (like Dorothy Dunnett). Bernard Bastable's novels about Mozart are a similar exception, though there it's played for laughs.

The criticisms I have are perhaps aimed more at the publisher than the author. Why the dreadfully boring title? Surely something more imaginative would help raise the book's profile. The cover illustration is very thoughtless. One of the vital clues concerns the theft of a gun from a gun-case; a case with smashed glass panels and a missing gun is shown in the picture. But the illustrated case also has wooden bars between the panes of glass, too close together to pull a gun out between them - and they are shown unbroken in the illustration.

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