When I open a book by Nicola Slade I am instantly enchanted, because she includes a Dramatis Personae with, in the proper manner, a few well-chosen words of description for each person. At the foot there's a list of minor characters; here, assorted cats, dogs, art historians, ghosts and villagers
. You know you're in good hands with a book that starts thus, don't you!
A Crowded Coffin
is a sequel to Murder Fortissimo
which I reviewed enthusiastically here
a year ago. I note that then I approved of Harriet Quigley, retired headmistress, for her cautious approach to investigation; hmm, perhaps that was her convalescent status in the first book, because here she's a good deal more gung-ho. Okay, she always convinces herself there's a good reason not to wait but, like her cousin Sam, I keep wanting to tell her to be more careful! And that a young artist who's recovering from a long period of privation ought to be tucked up in bed at night, and not recruited to go hunting criminals in the dark with women who ought to know better! Maybe Sam is right and Harriet is just a bit too keen on becoming the Miss Marple of Locksley.
Events here are very much focused on Harriet and her family. Sam is moving in next door, something they both anticipate with pleasure. Meanwhile another cousin, Walter Attlin, has had a accident in which he was knocked down by a car. His grand-daughter Edith comes rushing home from the States where she's been working for several years, full of concern and determined to stay and look after her grandparents. She finds Walter's making a good recovery, except for insisting that someone did it on purpose. There are new people sharing her family home now, too: Karen the housekeeper and her Polish husband, and Rory Attlin, an artist who seems to be a hitherto unheard-of relation.
Edith and Harriet are both very concerned about the apparent attack on Walter, although he now refuses to say any more about it. Harriet is also curious about a young archivist who disappeared after visiting the local pub, and then there are the figures spotted moving around after dark near the Attlins' farm. There are newcomers to the village too -- could one of them be responsible for Walter's "accident"? There do seem to be a number of suspiciously dented cars around...
Not listed in the Dramatis Personae is the Attlin family's farmhouse, although you feel it should be there; once known as the Angel House, Locksley Farm Place dates back centuries, perhaps to a Roman villa on the same site. The author conveys the sense of the house's age and antiquity seamlessly, as Rory learns its history and explores its nooks and crannies, and the reader is left with an impression of great solidity and warmth which permeates the whole book, transforming it from just another murder-mystery into an intimate experience. Harriet Quigley is rapidly joining Sheila Malory as an old-friend-of-the-family who just happens to get involved in mysteries, and I look forward to hearing about her further exploits!