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When the body of a young woman is discovered in the disused farm-yard of Eli Smith, an illiterate scrap-metal dealer who also owns a considerable acreage of Cotswold land, it does not take Inspector Jess Campbell long to discover that the farm has a tragic history - 30 years ago Eli came back from market to discover that his twin brother Nathan had shot their mother and father. Nathan later hanged himself in prison. But Jess also has the fact that a silver Mercedes was seen in the vicinity of the barn shortly before the body was discovered. As well as attempting to resolve the murder, she has to deal with the arrival of a new Superintendent, Ian Carter.
MUD, MUCK AND DEAD THINGS is the first book in Ann Grangerís fourth mystery series. Her first, and much the most substantial, was the Mitchell and Markby series in which there were 15 books published between 1991 and 2004. These books featured Alan Markby who had attained the rank of Superintendent by the time of last book, THAT WAY MURDER LIES, and Meredith Mitchell, a Foreign Officer worker who settled in the somewhat vaguely defined 'Cotswolds' in which Markby operated. Their long-running romance was finally resolved in that last book, in which Jess Campbell also appeared as a new member of Markby's team. It was a series which, quite deservedly, developed a considerable fan-base. After launching two quite separate series - the Fran Varady series, a bold but not wholly successful venture to London, and the Lizzie Martin Victorian books - Granger has now returned to what may be considered her natural ground, with Jess Campbell providing the tangible link with the Mitchell and Markby series.
It is therefore quite appropriate to measure Mud, Muck and Dead Things against the yardstick of the Mitchell and Markby series. Certainly the books occupy the same sort of territory, both literally and metaphorically. Literally the difference is that this series is set in Cheltenham rather than the fictional Bamford of the M and M books; but both can still be described as 'Cotswold' mysteries, a tag which seems to carry some sort of commercial cachet. In terms of the 'sort' of books they are, they also occupy the same territory - which is best described as traditional - a murder, an investigation, a number of suspects, and a resolution. This banal summation of the book's structure is worthwhile because Granger's strength is in writing precisely this kind of plot to a fairly high standard. The additions she brings are some pleasant sociological observations - which seem much more assured when she is back in the Cotswolds - and quite often, as in this case, the use of a link to a crime from the past. Indeed, in this case she adds a dash of semi-comic woo-woo, but of a kind which is wholly unobjectionable and can be easily seen as either psychological projection or paranormal according to the reader's preference.
The weakness in this first book in a new series as against the Mitchell and Markby books lies in the central characters themselves. Although MUD, MUCK AND DEAD THINGS is billed as 'A Campbell and Carter Mystery' we actually see and learn little of Ian Carter other than a few rather enigmatic hints. No doubt this is a deliberate strategy and Granger intends to build the characters as the series progresses, but here both characters seem a little colourless in comparison with Mitchell and Markby; perhaps this is an unfair cavil, and will not be apparent to those unfamiliar with the earlier series, but as the comparison is bound to occur to those familiar with Granger's work it cannot be overlooked.
The description which most aptly relates to MUD, MUCK AND DEAD THINGS is solid worth. The plot is not brilliant but is certainly more than adequate, the narrative while not totally compelling is engrossing enough, the characters have no great psychological depth but are engaging, the social observation tends to the conventional but is certainly enjoyable. But I do not wish to underplay the value of solid worth; this is a well-written, well-crafted traditional British mystery by a writer with an assured grasp of her technique - these values are a great deal rarer than might be imagined and should be correspondingly cherished. It is very good to see Granger back on her home territory - MUD, MUCK AND DEAD THINGS demonstrates that is where she thrives and it is to be hoped that with the development of the central characters this series can become a worthy successor to Mitchell and Markby.
Reviewed by Nick Hay, July 2009
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