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by Pamela Branch
Rue Morgue Press, January 2006
191 pages
ISBN: 0915230887

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

THE WOODEN OVERCOAT is the first of four comic mysteries by little-known British author Pamela Branch, all of which are being republished by Rue Morgue Press by the end of 2006 -- for this title it is also its first publication in the USA.

THE WOODEN OVERCOAT concerns the activities of two houses set next door to each other in Chelsea, London. The first houses The Asterisk Club, a necessarily secretive association and home for wrongly acquitted murderers, whose notoriety in the press has made a return to their previous lives impossible.

The neighbouring house is let to four chaotic young artists, Hugo and Bertha Berko and their friends Fan and Peter Hilford who, being rather short of cash, decide to take in lodgers. This enterprise is somewhat compromised by the fact that the house has become over-run with vermin, but a rat catcher is hired, and he brings with him a large quantity of arsenic and other poisons. Soon dead bodies are piling up and one of them isn't a rat.

The Berkos and Hilfords decide the best course of action is to get rid of the body, and they embark on a series of increasingly ludicrous and amusing attempts to do so, but find it just isn't as easy as they thought. Meanwhile the ever watchful Asterisks have seen their shenanigans and, increasingly concerned that such amateur criminality will draw unwelcome attention to their club, plan a rescue mission. And then of course, there is the question of whodunit.

Written in 1951, THE WOODEN OVERCOAT has aged remarkably well. Once one surrenders to the wildly absurd premise on which the tale is set and settles in to enjoy the farce, a compelling story unfolds. The tension builds quickly and the amusement heightens so that for me it just got better and better.

Whilst some of the characters are caricatures of old cons and artists, they serve the purpose of the story very well, and despite the old cars and domestic servants involved, it is easy to imagine this as a contemporary tale. This may be particularly true if you are also familiar with modern day Chelsea and recognise the locations described, because it is a visually strong novel, as you might expect from a farce.

THE WOODEN OVERCOAT is a darkly funny British piece and as well as some wonderfully mad ideas the author also has a few great turns of phrase. By the end I was smiling very happily, and looking forward to the indulgence of reading more by this author very soon.

Reviewed by Bridget Bolton, February 2006

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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