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In this, the fifth in the Margery Fleming series, DI Fleming has, as usual, a lot on her plate. She is being harassed by an ambitious lawyer from the Procurator Fiscal's ( I suppose the nearest equivalent is the District Attorney) office, and she has been asked to investigate a cold case - an unsolved murder over 20 years old in which it appears that both her immediate superior and her father were guilty of procedural irregularities. On top of that the crew and cast of 'Playfair's Punch' have arrived in Galloway to shoot an out-of-Glasgow episode which will have a guest appearance by Sylvia Lascelles, a faded movie star who was the lover of the series' central character's - the charismatic Marcus Lindsay - father. Throw into this mix simmering tensions between Galloway locals and East European workers and ‘Big Marge' faces a set of problems which leave her both personally and professionally battered by the end of the book.
There are a couple of problems for me in reviewing DEAD IN THE WATER. The first is that I thought the second (THE DARKNESS AND THE DEEP) and third (LYING DEAD) books in the series were superb - the first for the brilliance of its murder method which for me is up there with the best ever devised, and the second for its wonderful plotting whose denouement took me completely by surprise. Secondly I have to admit an inbuilt predisposition in favour of the series because of its setting in Galloway, which is my favourite part of the British Isles. Having said this I think Templeton is doing a wonderful job in writing those kind of mysteries which are deeply rooted in a particular locality, where the particular history, geography, sociology of that locality are tied in to the feel of both the series as a whole and each particular book. This is a type of series which has become less fashionable now than it was twenty years ago and the Margery Fleming series does an excellent job of keeping the flame alive. The other peculiar strength of this series, which I admit is a matter of taste, is the time and attention given to Margery's family life - her relationship with her farmer husband, her mother and her two children. For me this is very well done and a real strength - well exemplified here by a painful choice between job and family which occurs late in the book. But those who dislike their detectives having a family life and prefer the drunken egomaniac stereotype will no doubt be disconcerted by a continuous probing on the topic of a woman trying to balance job and family.
Having said all this how does DEAD IN THE WATER fare as a series entry and individual book? Well it is not as good as either THE DARKNESS AND THE DEEP or LYING DEAD but it is a real improvement on the fourth book, LAMB TO THE SLAUGHTER. The use of the television series is interesting and amusing and I am always pleased by a homage to Taggart - Templeton acknowledges Colin McCredie and the great Blythe Duff ('Jackie') in her introduction although she is careful to ensure that Marcus Lindsay resembles neither Taggart, Jardine nor Burke. The plot-lines are perfectly passable without being startling or brilliant. The use of landscape is as good as ever; certainly anyone who has ever been to that dramatic piece of land which is the Mull of Galloway will treasure both Templeton's descriptive powers, and the way in which she ties the book's central event into that wild landscape. As previously commented the family dilemma which is presented to Margery here, although late in the book, is a fascinating one to which readers will react in a variety of ways as to whether or not she makes the right choice, or whether indeed a right choice is possible. I am not wholly sure about the Lindsay/Lascelles story line which threatens to become melodramatic, but that may because I am rarely a fan of the Gothic which is what this particular plot has elements of.
All in all DEAD IN THE WATER does not quite recapture the heights which this series attained in its second and third books but nonetheless the various strengths - the excellent location writing, smooth plotting, the real examination of the conflicts which Margery's job bring - mean that it is not only a genuine pleasure for her and Templeton's admirers, but a very much better than average mystery in its own right. Templeton's problem is that she set her own bar at a fantastically high level; to equal let alone surpass it would be a feat indeed and in the meantime we should celebrate her as one of the best writers working in the now much reduced field of very specifically located British mysteries.
§ 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, August 2010
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