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by Kaye C. Hill
Crème de la Crime, April 2009
272 pages
7.99 GBP
ISBN: 0955158990

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Lexy Lomax, the book's heroine and protagonist, has fled from a rotten marriage with a suitcase full of cash, which she feels she cannot touch as it was obtained dishonestly by her ex-husband. She has bought a dilapidated wooden cabin near the small Suffolk coastal town of Clopwolde- on-Sea. The previous owner died suddenly and her nephew seemed in a hurry to get rid of it; in fact he put in on eBay. He certainly never took the trouble to have the phone disconnected, which is why Lexy receives a strange phone call asking about her 'discreet services'. Once Lexy has established that the services involved are of an investigatory rather than sexual nature she agrees, desperate for some cash, to take on the assignment, which involves trailing a man's wife and photographing her activities. This provides the starting point for an increasingly hectic and confused set of investigations for Lexy and her Chihuahua Kinky. It seems that several of the inhabitants of Clopwolde have need of her services and even more have secrets to hide. Sorting out friend from foe proves as complicated as unravelling the threads of the mystery, which take a darker turn when someone is murdered.

It is to be hoped that the foregoing summary has provided a pointer to the fact that in her debut book, and the first in a series, Kaye C Hill has taken on the very demanding task of creating a semi-comic mystery; it is very considerably to her credit that by and large she succeeds. In terms of antecedents the closest one can think of is Liz Evans and her excellent Grace Smith series, which sadly disappeared in around 2005. This is not to say that DEAD WOMAN'S SHOES is in any way derivative; Lexy is considerably less street-wise than Grace, and the feel of the book is lighter . But the apparent disappearance of Evans's series has definitely left a gap in the market which Hill bids fair to fill. Starting where one should always start, there is a very satisfactory plot here, in which apparently disparate threads are all brought together in the conclusion, and everything makes admirable sense once it is explained. There is a strong classic whodunit element with Hill setting up a number of suspects for both Lexy and the reader to toy with. Lexy is able to resolve one of her cases through a degree of insight and research, but the greater truth only emerges in an almost accidental final confrontation.

Given this firm plot basis what matters in this kind of semi-comic writing are the quality of the prose, in terms of humour, and of course the characterisation. In respect of both Hill makes a very good start. The writing is clear and has good comic similes. The characters are enjoyable and manage to walk just the right side of the stereotypical, which is always the greatest challenge with this kind of writing. Best of all Hill manages to write very well and amusingly, and without whimsy, about various animals who play a large part in the narrative from Kinky downwards. They add enormously to the book's charm without ever becoming twee or chintzy. Lexy herself is an engaging protagonist, though she will need to take on more depth as the series progresses, but this should happen fairly naturally. In particular I think Hill will have to pay some attention to her levels of knowledge and ignorance; if one is going to believe the former in a fairly abstruse area, then making her very ignorant in a less specialized area does not quite work (this refers to the condition of her property which was certainly obvious to me from early on and has been widely reported).

Nonetheless these are minor cavils. The book has the qualities of fine plotting, good writing and enjoyable characterisation. But the adjective which one would want to achieve with this kind of semi-comic mystery is sparkling, and by and large both Lexy and the book as a whole achieve this. DEAD WOMAN'S SHOES sparkles and leave the reader eager to see how Hill will develop both the series and as a writer. Oh and as a considerable major bonus she pulls off a final paragraph which will make any reader, with either a sense of humour or a heart, both laugh out loud. and bring a lump to the throat. Which is exactly what this kind of mystery should do.

Reviewed by Nick Hay, August 2009

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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