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by R. T. Raichev
Soho Constable, April 2011
272 pages
ISBN: 1569479143

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Mystery writer Antonia Darcy and Major Hugh Payne (ret.) agree that the kind of mystery they've never tackled is the one that is "unremittingly suburban." For most of us, "suburban" brings to mind images of barbeques on a Sunday, cars being washed in the drive, and soccer games for six-year-olds. But this is a Raichev novel and the suburb in question is Hampstead, though the murders take place in St John's Wood which itself was a suburb, once upon a time.

The party that brings the principals together is in Hampstead and at Kinderhook, the home of Melisande Chevret, an actress. Besides Antonia and Hugh, the other guests include Melisande's fiancé, James Morland, and a Bulgarian mother and daughter, Stella and Moon. The Bulgarians have come to England so that Stella can help the gloriously-named Tancred Vane who is at work on a life of Prince Cyril of Bulgaria. The Villa of the title belongs to Tancred. (There really was a Prince Cyril, who was shot by the Soviets as a Nazi collaborator in 1945.) Melisande's sister Winifred, pallid and restrained in comparison to her flamboyant sister, is also on the scene. Another guest whose presence was anticipated but who fails to show up is the elderly Miss Hope, pince-nez wearer and self-proclaimed former nanny to the bastard son of the Prince and a Hungarian cabaret singer.

As you can see from the cast of characters, we are very far from the world of harried commuters to the City (or anywhere else, for that matter). If it all sounds a bit Hercule Poirot-ish, it's supposed to, but the Darcy and Payne novels are not merely an homage to the Golden Age. They are a wickedly witty application of the conventions of the inter-war period mystery to the 21st century. And Raichev (himself born in Bulgaria, as it happens) manages it all by inventing a fiendishly clever plot and dialogue that is deliciously batty.

This novel, like Raichev's other work, will not please every reader. They do require a well-developed sense of irony and a taste for the absurd. But for those who care to look, there's more than enough going on beyond the obvious to satisfy. At the party, Winifred quotes a review of one of Amanda Payne's mysteries that called it "cunningly conceived, satisfactorily shaped, and enormously entertaining." As a description of MURDER AT THE VILLA BYZANTINE, I couldn't have said it any better myself.

§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, April 2011

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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