Reviewed by Victoria
If you are like me and enjoy the format of traditional cosy crime – an atmospheric setting, a great cast of possible suspects, a second body that arrives just at the right moment – then I can warmly recommend the new crime series by Julie Wassmer, (click here for the review of the previous volume).
The Whitstable Pearl mysteries feature local restaurant owner Pearl Nolan, a forty-year-old single mother whose dream of joining the police was ruined before it ever got off the ground by a teenage pregnancy. Pearl’s life took a completely different track, but by no means an unsuccessful one. She loves her restaurant in the heart of Whitstable, improvising tasty seafood dishes (there’s always a fair amount of very enjoyable food porn in these novels). Her mother, Dolly, a more capricious, loud and random character than her daughter, runs a B & B nearby and is often on hand to help or hinder. Pearl is well established in the town and surrounded by friends. And now that her son, Charlie, is at university there’s a hole in her life to fill, which has been taken up by her fledgling detective agency.
The detective business has brought her into contact with Canterbury copper DCI McGuire. He lost his fiancée to a car accident several years ago and is a bit wary of romance, but he’s needed Pearl’s help on several occasions and by this point in the series (book four), the couple have expressed their interest in one another, shared a kiss or two, but haven’t made it past uncertain flirtation.
When this book begins, McGuire has been neglecting Pearl. She hasn’t heard from him for several weeks and doesn’t know whether to be cross and upset or to reach for more patience. In any case, Dolly is whisking her off for a birthday treat: a week of supposed rest and relaxation at a refurbished riverside manor house on the outskirts of Canterbury. Dolly is friends with the people who have bought it and turned it into a going concern. What Dolly doesn’t tell Pearl until they’ve actually arrived is that the week is dedicated to a cooking course with celebrity chef Nico Caruso. When Pearl finds out she’s hardly delighted; she’d imagined genuine leisure, not a busman’s holiday.
Her pleasure in the holiday is further spoiled by her initial encounters with Nico. He seems arrogant and competitive and the two strike sparks of reasonably good-natured hostility. But then Nico makes an effort to behave better and Pearl starts to realise that he is in fact offering her an alternative possiblity of romance. Despite the rather odd assortment of people she’s with, and the shifting tensions she’s noting within the group, Pearl settles into the idyllic surroundings and believes she might enjoy herself after all.
And of course, we know that’s not going to happen! Before too long a murder has taken place that sets the guests on edge and brings Mike McGuire back into Pearl’s radius. Then Pearl has to tackle a wealth of trouble – the fallout of a soured marriage, failed businesses and family secrets, and even clues hidden in Boccacio’s Decameron – to unmask a desperate killer.
What I really love about these books is that Julie Wassmer knows the right ingredients for an evocative, rich and wholly accessible read. The descriptions of the riverside manor house and the food the assembled guests cook are just gorgeous. She’s excellent at quickly establishing her characters and dropping enough hints about the tangled relations hidden between them. And there’s always a good, steady flow of events throughout the novel, keeping you completely engaged. Once you’ve bought into the ongoing story that concerns Pearl, it’s irresistible to find out what happens next. If I have to quibble, then in this particular outing, I’d say that Pearl’s final denouement did leave me wondering a bit how she knew the things she did. And while Pearl dazzles, Mike McGuire doesn’t always pull his weight in the detecting arena; against her, he can seem flat. But these really are minor quibbles in a series that’s been consistently vivid and inventive in its storytelling. If you like food and you like crime, I do suggest you try the Whitstable Pearl.
Victoria is an Editor At Large for Shiny New Books.
Julie Wassmer, Murder on the Pilgrims Way (Constable, April 2017). 978-1472124920, 304 pp., paperback.
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