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DANDY GILVER AND THE PROPER TREATMENT OF BLOODSTAINS is the 5th in Catriona McPherson's Dandy Gilver series and sees the heroine impersonating a lady's' maid in a rich Edinburgh household ; she has taken this role in response to the pleading of the mistress of the house, Walburga (sic) Balfour, who is convinced that her husband is going to murder her. In the event it is Philip Balfour who is found with dead with a knife sticking out of his neck. It is up to Dandy to solve a very tricky case while at the same time maintaining her impersonation and trying to come to grips with class conflicts in 1920's Edinburgh.
The only previous book in this series which I had read was the third (Bury Her Deep) which had not greatly impressed me; to say that this came as a pleasant surprise is an understatement. Indeed I am fascinated to find that even though, due to illness, a long time has elapsed between my reading the book and writing this review I still have a pretty good recollection of it. What are the book's strengths? First McPherson is extremely specific about her historical period; the events are set at the time of the General Strike (1926). In the first place this allows McPherson to give a lot genuinely interesting information. But more importantly it allows her to have a great deal of fun with her protagonist. Of course the very fact of Dandy experiencing the working life of a servant and the events of the servant's hall provide a chance for acute observation, but this is greatly sharpened by setting the book in this very particular period.
For the first part of the book I must admit that I somewhat missed the point here as McPherson allows Dandy Gilver's opinions, which are those of an upper-class woman of the period, to dominate; but as the book progresses it becomes very clear that in fact McPherson is having a great deal of fun with her protagonist. This turns the book from being imitation or pastiche into revision. There is absolutely no way that any of the original interwar mystery greats would have treated these events in this way. No; either McPherson has developed her approach considerably since the third book or I was being very obtuse when I read it (the latter is more than possible!) Whatever the reason, DANDY GILVER AND THE PROPER TREATMENT OF BLOODSTAINS works not only as a fascinating historical mystery in the sense of providing genuinely interesting historical detail, it also forces - as any good current day mystery set in the interwar years should do - the reader to reevaluate the treatment which certain social and political issues received in the mysteries of the day.
I say this because as I have argued here before that once you set a mystery in this period you are going to invite comparisons to the masters of that age and in terms of plot you are bound to fall short. Having said that, the greatest improvement here, despite what I have said above, is that McPherson produces a really interesting and well-worked out plot. She courageously reverts to and takes on the classic 'country house' form (albeit a grand town house in this case) with a limited number of suspects for Dandy to work through. I certainly had no inkling of the solution.
However I must mention that I was somewhat flabbergasted by the fact that the mechanics of the murder (which are very obscure, indeed esoteric) were the same as those in another current inter-war mystery I reviewed earlier in the year (I will not mention the book but anyone really interested could work it out). Now I am sure that this method was used - probably repeatedly - in the Golden Age, but it still seems very strange that two writers should (obviously independently) come up with it in 2009. Perhaps there was something in the air last year? Whatever the case better use is made of it here than in the other book; most importantly the who as well as the how remains a tantalising question right up to the denouement.
DANDY GILVER AND THE PROPER TREATMENT OF BLOODSTAINS was a real pleasure for me and this was not merely a matter of low expectations. It is historically interesting, witty, prepared to laugh at its protagonist and provides a really good plot. You will probably have to go a long way to find a better interwar mystery this year.
§ Nick Hay lives in Birmingham, UK where he spends a lot of his time reading mysteries (and trying to write about them).
Reviewed by Nick Hay, June 2010
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