Monday, March 14, 2016
Review: Death by the Book by Julianna Deering
Death by the Book (A Drew Farthering Mystery #2)
By: Julianna Deering
Publisher: Bethany House
Just a few short months have passed since murder and mayhem ripped through Drew Farthering's life, earning him a certain measure of local notoriety and allowing him to put into practice his aptitude for investigation and analysis. But when murder leaps from the pages of one's beloved mystery novels to leave its indelible thumbprint on one's life, the murderous and macabre lose their fictional allure -- and now Drew craves nothing more than a quiet life, and an affirmative answer to his proposal of marriage to Madeline Parker, his late stepfather's American niece. Just as he begins to hope that normalcy is returning to the sleepy hamlet of Farthering St. John, Drew discovers the body of his solicitor, a cryptic message pinned to his body with a jeweled hatpin. The death strikes uncomfortably close to home, as its shadow casts a pall over Drew's efforts to court Madeline when they are interrupted by the arrival of her formidable Aunt Ruth, the latter determined to whisk her niece back to America, far away from the wiles of wealthy Englishmen such as himself who can't seem to escape association with murder.
When an unexpected scandal erupts surrounding his late solicitor's personal life, Drew is drawn into the investigation at the request of the widow. As Drew struggles to balance his amateur investigative efforts with his ongoing romantic suit, the latter becomes further complicated by the arrival of a brash young American that Aunt Ruth seems determined to pair with her niece. When a second murder strikes the country club, the victim also marked by a cryptic message pinned through the chest, tensions run high as fear of the "Hatpin Murderer" ripples through Farthering St. John. As the death toll continues to mount, drawing ever closer to Drew's home, he begins to wonder -- is he the intended target, or the recipient of a vicious game played by a ruthless killer? Murder used to be a game ensconced safely within the pages of a riveting novel -- but if Drew's to survive this twist, he must master the rules to a game that's become all too real...and deadly.
Julianna Deering's first Drew Farthering mystery, Rules of Murder, was one of my favorite reads of the 2013, the first of two times to date that I've lost myself within the charm of its pages. For any mystery set during the "golden age" of detective fiction -- the era that gave birth to authors such as Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers -- I want lightening-fast pacing, sparkling dialogue, and pitch-perfect historical detail. Deering's debut proved to be an unexpected delight, delivering the rapid-fire dialogue and smartly-paced plotting that I so adore in everything from Christie's novels to the Thin Man films, the latter becoming a gold standard template for smart and sassy romantic detectives.
What sets Deering's novels apart is the subtle thread of faith she weaves throughout the storyline, culminating in Drew's declaration of faith at the conclusion of Rules of Murder. As Death by the Book picks up shortly after that life-changing experience, Drew is still very new to examining life -- and crime -- through the lens of faith. Given the high bar set by the authors of the classic mysteries to which Deering both aspires and pays homage, in lesser hands the introduction of an explicit faith element could easily disrupt the narrative flow and atmosphere of the story. But Deering exhibits a refreshingly delicate touch, as any mention of Drew's newfound faith is organically incorporated into the storyline, if anything enhancing his charm and good humor rather than becoming the sole focal point. In Drew's world, murder mysteries just happen to be solved by Christians, allowing the exercise of one's faith in arguably the most worldly of contexts -- a crime scene.
Deering's characters are an absolute joy -- crisply realized, they leap from the page with pitch-perfect dialogue and mannerisms. Drew in particular is a delight. Rarely have I ever found a characterization that does such justice to the speech patterns and manner of those found in the likes of Christie novels or the detective films of the 1930s. Aunt Ruth is a fabulous addition to the cast of players, a formidable force to be reckoned with, bringing to mind the persona of screen giants such as Edith Barrymore, or for a more recent comparison, the incomparable Maggie Smith. My only disappointment -- and it's a slight one -- is how Madeline's character developed, or to be more precise, didn't, over the course of the novel. Given her introduction I'd hope for more of a Myrna Loy-as-Nora Charles spark. Instead, she's more angst-ridden than Drew -- she won't say yes to his proposal (yet), but she won't 1) stop kissing him or 2) leave in order to consider it with the benefit of distance and perspective, until the end of the novel forces her hand. However, I have high hopes that she'll play an even more active role in future investigations as a result.
This updated review marks my second time to read Death by the Book, and while I enjoyed it just as much this time around, this time I was struck by the resolution to the central "Hatpin Murderer" mystery, even though upon review I didn't address that in my initial post. Deering masterfully peppers her plot with red herrings, constructing a serial killer case that grows ever more ominous with each successive killing, each more seemingly random than the last. While I appreciate the suspense and Deering's deft plot construction, I can't help but wish that the perpetrator played a larger role in this and the previous novel prior to being revealed as the murderer. There's a bit of a disconnect between the effervescent period tone of the novel and the shocking reveal of the murderer...one I wish had been given more time to develop.
Drew's second outing as aristocratic amateur sleuth is a rare treat for mystery lovers. Smartly plotted, peopled with engaging characters, and peppered with enough red herrings to make Dame Christie's head spin, Death by the Book secures Deering's place as a shining star in the realm of period mystery fiction. While the "conflict" introduced by Aunt Ruth (exacerbated by Madeline's indecisiveness) in an attempt to keep Drew and Madeline apart feels forced, that issue aside this second installment of Drew's sleuthing adventures is a delightful way in which to while away a few hours. Smartly plotted, with sparkling, rapid-fire dialogue and delicious period detail, Death by the Book was well worth the wait, refreshing the tropes of the classic mystery with a carefully spun cord of faith and humor. I can't wait to see where Deering takes Drew & Co. next!
About the book:
When the village of Farthering St. John is stunned by a series of murders, Drew Farthering is drawn again into the sleuthing game.
Drew Farthering wanted nothing more than to end the summer of 1932 with the announcement of his engagement. Instead, he finds himself caught up in another mysterious case when the family solicitor is found murdered, an antique hatpin with a cryptic message, Advice to Jack, piercing his chest.
Evidence of secret meetings and a young girl's tearful confession point to the victim's double life, but what does the solicitor's murder have to do with the murder of a physician on the local golf course? Nothing, it would seem -- expect for another puzzling note, affixed with a similar-looking bloodied hatpin.
Soon the police make an arrest in connection with the murders, but Drew isn't at all certain they have the right suspect in custody. And why does his investigation seem to be drawing closer and closer to home?
Note: This is an edited and expanded version of my original review, first published in April 2014.