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Morris Little, local businessman, amateur historian and member of the Norbridge Abbey Chorus is a thoroughly unpleasant man. When he is found murdered at Norbridge College two local yobs with bad reputations who have been hanging about the College at the time of the murder, engaging in minor vandalism, are swiftly arrested. Gradually though doubts about their guilt start to emerge, particularly in the minds of Suzy Spencer, TV producer, and Robert Clark, lecturer at the college. Suzy and Robert also have their own problems ; their relationship only started a couple of years ago and Suzy has brought her two children to live in Robert's house, The Briars. They have not really resolved how they relate to each other or where they want the relationship to go. Other people in Norbridge who have doubts about the crime, like Alex Gibson, devastated by the break-up of her marriage and her mother's death, and Edwin Armstrong, still recovering from his girlfriend's suddenly leaving him, have their own problems to wrestle with before they can become involved in trying to puzzle out what is going in. A couple of strange 'accidents', all of which seem to have some reference to the Book of Psalms, add to the confusion and the sense that there was more to Morris's death than met the eye.
Sometimes the best way to describe, and consider, a book is in terms of the influences and sub-genres which it reflects; this is certainly true of THE CHORISTER AT THE ABBEY. It took me a little while to identify the first key, and definitely most important, influence, which should have been immediately apparent, because it is not from the mystery genre at all: Jilly Cooper. Anyone who has read Cooper's work (RIVALS would be an excellent example) would recognise this - a large cast, the cataloguing of social anxieties, rather superficial and limited - albeit amusing - sociological observation, worms turning, troublesome teenagers and of course lots of relationships and romances (the one big difference is that there is very little sex in THE CHORISTER AT THE ABBEY). Now writing a sub-Jilly Cooper book is no bad thing and Howell manages this material reasonably competently, particularly in the story of Alex Gibson. The problem is that for the first half of the book this entirely swamps the mystery element, which never really recovers thereafter.
In terms of mystery sub-genres this book belongs in the first place to the ecclesiastical mystery - there is a lot of stuff about various churches, vicars, rituals, church music and theological differences (High and Low etc.). The problem here is that Howell is just not as convincing or intriguing a writer as the best in this field - the excellent Kate Charles and D.M Greenwood. Secondly, THE CHORISTER AT THE ABBEY is in its way a village mystery - not that Norbridge is by any means a village, but there is a strong sense of a fairly closed community in which every knows, or is connected in some way, with each other. There is also a close concentration on a certain section of society - the middle-class (most of whom, rather improbably in 21st century England, are in some way connected to church matters - but that is to some extent a necessary fiction for the ecclesiastical mystery). So we can also hear the distant echoes of the work of the greatest of modern practitioners of the village mystery - Caroline Graham. Certainly Norbridge, with its distinctive Cumbrian setting, is no Cawston, and we are definitely not in Midsomer country, but the social observation, the large cast, indeed the strong romantic element all find their place in Graham's work (though she does it better).
The comparison to Graham, harsh as it may be, highlights again the central problem of Howell's book - the mystery is not merely not clever enough (it is pretty obvious to the reader a long time before the close), its position is so swamped by the various personal narratives that at times it is lost sight of altogether. More and more elements are piled in - genealogical research, local history, biblical exposition, music and choral singing - all of some interest in themselves, but doing little to drive the plot forward, build any suspense or pace or contribute to the mystery.
Once again THE CHORISTER AT THE ABBEY demonstrates that to write a good mystery you need - a good mystery! The rest is pleasant enough and if you want some sub-Jilly Cooper without the sex, or if you are a big fan of the ecclesiastical mystery - as I am - and have exhausted Kate Charles and D.M. Greenwood, then this book is well worth seeking out; it is entertaining, sometimes charming and, for those with an interest in church matters, interesting. It is a pleasant-enough and certainly undemanding read; but as a mystery the final judgement must be that it fails.
Reviewed by Nick Hay, June 2008
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