Is it possible to write a cosy murder mystery set in a country house in the 1920s without inviting comparisons to a host of earlier authors? Perhaps if one is lucky in one’s readers — but I am afraid that Carola Dunn’s Death at Wentwater Court, the first of her lengthy series featuring the Honourable Daisy Dalrymple, had very bad luck indeed when it met me. As a fan of Golden Age detective fiction, and of interwar women’s fiction in general, I am the reader who stops and stares at the page when the chambermaid in Dunn’s novel calls something “wizard.” Why is the chambermaid using public school slang? Does she secretly read Tom Swift novels when not cleaning bedrooms? Does her use of schoolboy slang to a guest indicate something about the lack of control the young wife of the Earl has over her household? Or does it say something about the servants’ attitutdes towards Daisy? After all, Daisy is not quite a proper guest; she is visiting Wentwater Court in order to write a magazine article about the home and family. There are endless possibilities, but alas, the truth is that Dunn is simply making one of her many mistakes in tone, the sort of mistake that most readers will never even notice, or notice and brush aside — but here I am, the wrong reader for this book, assuming it all means something.
Unfortunately, even when Dunn is not mis-using slang or littering her descriptions with brand names in an exceptionally modern way reminiscent of the Gossip Girl novels, her book is not a success. The plot is all right, the characterisation one-dimensional but at least consistent, but her prose — well, it is very… prosy. When she wishes the reader to know that Daisy is unused to people being sympathetic about her fiancee’s death, she tells us that “Daisy was unused to wholehearted sympathy.” When she feels the need to remind the reader that, for some unknown reason, everyone confides in Daisy even if they have no reason to do so, she writes, “Daisy decided it would be untactful to tell him that he was by no means the first to confide in her.” And so it goes, for pages upon pages; it is like reading a story written by an extremely young person who is not sure that the audience will understand, so everything must be repeated again or again. When my son does this to tell me about his day at school I find it charming, but I prefer novelists to trust my intelligence and to realise that I am actually paying attention to their book & thus do not need salient points repeated. Indeed, I prefer novelists to construct their books so that the protagonists do not need to have a magical ability to inspire confidences from strangers in order for the plot to function, but I am willing to forgive much for enjoyment. This book did not quite outstrip my ability to forgive, but it came close.
So yes, clearly I am the wrong reader for this book — and yet I am frustrated, because if only Dunn wrote just a little better these would make excellent Silent Pleasures for the autumn. Alas, I peeked in at the second novel, and it is just as bad — another round of Daisy being confided in for no good reason except that Dunn cannot discover any other way to do exposition, so I think I must give up on these books; it is not as though I am in any danger of running out of things to read. But if any of you, my readers, are fans of Dunn’s novels, I would love to know what it is you enjoy in them.