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by M.C. Beaton
Constable & Robinson, June 2011
262 pages
6.99 GBP
ISBN: 1849016089

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

There's always a risk when you enjoy a series that reading a standalone book by the same author will prove disappointing. Then again, sometimes it's a chance for that author to surprise you with something fresh.

M C Beaton is perhaps best known for her foul-mouthed but good-hearted amateur sleuth Agatha Raisin. I've enjoyed several of these detecting capers, set in the pretty Cotswolds village of Carsely, and have become accustomed to the heroine's acerbic and often bad tempered ways. So it was a surprise to meet 38-year-old virgin Fellworth Dolphin and his partner in crime-solving, Maggie Partlett. The unlikely stars of THE SKELETON IN THE CLOSET are downtrodden underdogs who come across refreshingly innocent and childlike.

They are plunged into an adventure when Fell's mother dies and he discovers that, far from being as poverty stricken as they always made out, his parents were in fact very well off. The question is, where is the money from? It is this quest for discovery that leads Fell and Maggie, who agrees to pretend to be his fiancée (a bizarre and unlikely plot device which nonetheless serves a purpose of allowing her to participate in the action), into all sorts of trouble.

Oddly, there is never the sense that either Fell or Maggie are in actual danger, despite several attempts on their life. Gripping isn't a word that sits comfortably with this book, although it is nevertheless an entertaining story with an ability to maintain interest. Although written in a somewhat linear fashion, there are a series of subplots which keep the book interesting; not only are we kept wondering about Fell's father's possible involvement in a train robbery many years ago, there's also the mystery of his parentage. And, of course, the eternal question – will he or won't he get the girl?

As an unashamed fan of the cosy crime sub-genre, I was not in the least disturbed by the lack of gore or psychological thrill in this novel. It could have done with a few more suspects and a bit more suspense perhaps, but I don't think that's the kind of book the author was going for. Instead, this is part crime, part adventure, part romance, and perhaps even part coming of age story. It isn't a thriller, or even a complicated murder mystery full of clues and red herrings, but a gentle insight into the lives of two ordinary people plunged into extraordinary circumstances, and in this sense it succeeds entirely.

If you're hoping for Agatha Raisin, then really you should stick to Agatha Raisin. But if you are interested in exploring a softer, altogether more meandering style from M C Beaton, this is a very good place to start.

§ Rin Simpson is a Bristol-based freelance writer and long standing crime fiction fan who is currently working on her first novel.

Reviewed by Rin Simpson, October 2011

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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