Reviewed by Victoria
Earlier this year I read the first in the Whitstable Pearl series by Julie Wassmer and enjoyed it. It featured an intriguing new sleuth, Pearl Nolan. A single mother who had given up a promising career in the police many years ago when she found she was pregnant, Pearl had fallen back on her domestic skills to start a gourmet café in her home town of Whitstable. Now with son Charlie off at university and a bad case of empty nest syndrome, she is longing to set up a private investigation business. Add into the mix Pearl’s lively mother, Dolly, and a tall, blonde, handsome detective inspector in the area (I’m thinking Lawrence Fox in Lewis, you can think of whoever you like), and you have a pretty good recipe for a credible and amusing situation. Wassmer used to write scripts for Eastenders, so she was always going to be a safe pair of hands. This second novel was, unsurprisingly, better than the first as is so often the case with crime fiction series, as the characters become more clearly defined and grow from book to book.
I started reading this one morning last week, and although I had all sorts of things I ought to have been doing, I finished it later that same day. A spate of poison pen messages in Christmas cards causes much upset among Pearl’s friends and acquaintances, who try to persuade her to take on a new case despite the Christmas celebrations being merely days away. Pearl is reluctant; Charlie will be back for the festivities and she has a lot of work on her hands with all the preparation a family get-together will demand. It’s clear that Pearl isn’t the only one feeling uneasy at the thought of the onslaught of the holidays. Her accoutant, Diana, is in a very strange mood when she visits her, involved in a feud with her new neighbours that seems to be driving her a bit crazy, and showing very mixed feelings at the prospect of her own family arriving. Diana’s nephew, Giles, is coming with his disagreeable wife and spoiled son. Having never married, Giles is all the family Diana has, and she has often helped him out of trouble in the past but this year she vows all will be different.
Pearl is inevitably suspicious, then, when Diana collapses at the Church Hall’s Christmas fundraiser party. At first it looks as if Diana has hit the bottle once too often, but when the toxicology report comes back with a verdict of poison, it’s clear to Pearl that Diana’s strange mood and the trouble swirling around her have had fatal consequences. She decides she ought to look more closely into the business of the poison pen cards after all.
In this she is once again assisted by DCI Mike McGuire. Pearl has admitted to herself by now that she is attracted to the police officer, and invited him to attend the church fundraiser with her. Unfortunately, this makes McGuire a material witness to the murder and so he is banned from the official enquiry. Having little faith in the officer left in charge, McGuire joins forces with Pearl in order to find out what they can.
This is just straightforwardly excellent cosy crime. The setting is beautifully created (I should think the Whitstable tourist board ought to be grateful for the boost), the characters are developing nicely and Julie Wassmer really knows how to tell a story. There’s a full cast of colourful characters, all of whom are neatly and distinctly drawn so I never had a problem knowing who was who, and the plot unfurls with perfect timing, giving me that, ‘hmm, well, just one more chapter’ feeling from start to finish. And the conclusion was clever and satisfying. If you’ve got a busy Christmas season in prospect, I can’t think of a better way to unwind afterwards.
Julie Wassmer, Murder on Sea (Constable, 1st October 2015) 978-1472119124, 320 pages, hardback.