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Crime-writer Antonia Darcy is part of a panel at the Hay Festival in June; her attention wandering, she is distracted by two women, one a smart blonde in a wheelchair, the other severely clad in black. At the post-panel book signing, Goldilocks, as Antonia has denoted the blonde, introduces herself as Beatrice Ardleigh and Cerberus (Antonia's name for her protector) as Ingrid. They prove to be a very peculiar couple, but Antonia's author's curiosity leads to her accepting their offer of tea. In November Antonia and her husband Hugh get an invitation from Beatrice to come to her house in Oxfordshire so that Beatrice can show her a very strange letter she has received that she thinks might give Antonia an idea for a book. Once again falling prey to curiosity, Antonia and Hugh thus get drawn into the extremely strange events which surround Beatrice and Ralph Renshawe, the multi-millionaire owner of the gothic mansion Ospreys.
Since commencing reviewing here I have been waiting in dwindling hope of unearthing a hidden gem - a mystery author new to me of real quality. In Raiche I have at last uncovered if not a diamond then at least a second small treasure. Having said which I am very aware that this is not a book which would appeal to all. It is quirky, mannered, allusive, witty, literary and manages the paradoxical feat of being both old-fashioned and post-modern. If your interests are any kind of realism then look elsewhere. The book is old-fashioned in that belongs very self-consciously in one strand of the Golden Age tradition - the witty, literary one represented at its apogee by Michael Innes. It is surely no accident that APPLEBY AND THE OSPREYS was the title of Innes last book (although in that case the Ospreys were the family rather than the house). It is old-fashioned in its placing of the narrative at the heart of the book. It is curiously old-fashioned in its cultural and social references; although specifically set in 2005 the book could, the odd mobile aside, really come from any time in the past thirty or forty years. Antonia and Hugh appear to have wandered straight out of the pages of a Golden Age novel.
Yet for all this, the book is also self-consciously post-modern with a succession of in-jokes about its own content. The chief vehicle is naturally Antonia's profession; she and Hugh are given to inventing plots which might be the subject of one of her own books as well as possible solutions to the mystery of Ospreys. At one point Antonia starts drafting a wonderful convoluted explanation for the sequence of events they have encountered (in fact it is rather more entertaining than the eventual solution). There are a stream of allusions not only to mystery fiction but to all kinds of literature. For example, Raichev wittily drops the name of a fictional country-house (Nunspardon from Marsh's SCALES OF JUSTICE) into a list of 'real' country houses with strange names. By these devices Raichev constantly reminds us that we are reading fiction. Yet such is his ingenuity in terms of inventing memorable characters (above all the wondrously named Father Lillie-Lysander) and in keeping various narrative balls and voices in the air that he manages to sustain both involvement and pleasure. This is a very tricky and difficult balancing act which only a highly competent writer could attempt, let alone accomplish.
I said that the book was not a real diamond. It does have two distinct flaws. A couple of the narrative voices - those which Raichev has to use when a couple of characters descend into complete madness - are much less engaging and convincing than the others. Secondly the eventual conclusion is a little weak. Indeed it may be argued that the first half of the book is rather better than the latter.
Despite these failings ASSASSINS AT OSPREYS is a delight. Raichev apparently grew up in Bulgaria. What emerges very strongly is his sheer delight and pleasure both in the process of mystery writing (and a real awareness of its traditions and history) and in the eccentricities and foibles of the English upper-middle and upper classes. Right from its cover (the best I have seen in quite a while) the book is a feast of pleasures and the reader is never quite sure what the next chapter will hold either in terms of narrative development or of mood and style. Above all, Raichev is, among contemporary mystery writers at least, original. If your tastes run to the literate, quirky, allusive, witty then unearth this treasure.
Reviewed by Nick Hay, July 2008
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