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by James Anderson
Poisoned Pen Press, November 2003
330 pages
ISBN: 1590580982

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

No one's going to believe me when I say I loved this mystery, just as much as I enjoyed the previous books by James Anderson, THE AFFAIR OF THE BLOODSTAINED EGG COSY and THE AFFAIR OF THE MUTILATED MINK. After all, I'm a modern 21st century type mystery reader; I like books about American private eyes and hard-boiled mysteries in places like San Francisco or New York. I don't think I've ever once said how much I enjoy the old-fashioned drawing-room, manor house, curate-to-tea mystery. I don't.

But what is it exactly about Anderson's take on this classic form? It's not parody, or even pastiche, as I understand the term. It's written lovingly, with every traditional element; a group of people at a large house in the country, the local law enforcement, the titled folks, the secrets, the clues. THE AFFAIR OF THE 39 CUFFLINKS even uses that hoary old "let's sum up who's going to inherit my money" bit and then, when the legatees gather to hear the will read, somebody dies. Oh, come now! But darn it, it's delightful!

Don't rely on my description of the plot; if I were to read this, I doubt I'd be remotely interested in reading the book because it is a cliche; it's the 1930s in England, an old lady dies, the family and retainers gather to hear the will. One horrid person is left out of the inheritance, shrieks threats at them all saying they conspired and she would reveal all their secrets, and of course, she ends up murdered.

Everyone apparently knew that she sold gossip to the newspapers and, as is true in real life as well as in fiction, several of the guests -- the Member of Parliament, the lawyer, the young flighty man, have secrets they don't want revealed. But the characterization, while familiar, is well-wrought; you see people through dialogue and action, not heavy-handed description. And just when you have them figured out, and know who you like and don't like, someone surprises you.

Perhaps the author winks at us just a little, but it's to say "come with me, this will be fun" rather than, "see how much fun I can poke at this standard no-longer-fresh type of story." Two of the lead characters are named Agatha and Dorothy, and I just can't believe this is a coincidence.

The copyright of this book is 2003 and the story is set in the same time and place as the earlier ones (we have paperbacks of those showing copyright dates of 1975 and 1981). Did THE AFFAIR OF THE 39 CUFFLINKS sit In a drawer all these years? Horrors! I hope not. In a note at the beginning of the book, the author details how to read the book's financial details; giving American and British readers help in translating pounds to today's dollars. And even there, you get a sense of the wryness when the author tells you: "Readers who find all this as confusing as the author does should seek help from their friendly neighbourhood economist." I couldn't help it, I giggled. (And immediately thought: "Darn, the only neighborhood economist I know of is Meyer, who lives down the slip from Travis McGee" -- I bring that up just to show I'm not slipping into a love of cozies.)

Reviewed by Andi Shechter, January 2004

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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