Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A Ghost in the Machine

The latest entry to date in Caroline Graham's Midsomer Murder series featuring the bilious Chief Inspector Barnaby and the hapless Sergeant Troy might be more aptly titled 'Inheritance of Loss' for the sweeping way in which it examines the sinister consequences of a windfall.

Mallory Lawson is just about at wits' end -- financially and psychically -- as principal of a failing inner-city comprehensive, when his favourite aunt dies and leaves behind a sizable legacy of property and cash. Mallory's wife, Kate, sees an opportunity to pursue her dream of rescuing undiscovered but truly literary novelists from the maw of obscurity. Their daughter, Polly, sees her chance to get out of crippling debt, and perhaps even to profit at the other end.   

But the given name, A Ghost in the Machine (2004),  isn't bad, either. In this case, it comes from the bizarre collection of instruments of ancient warfare assembled and put on display in the home of Dennis Brinkley, the Lawson's otherwise uneccentric solicitor and accountant. When the massive catapult goes wobbly and winds up killing Dennis, more than one resident of Forbes Abbot is called to explain.

Fans of Caroline Graham will find many familiar features to admire in A Ghost in the Machine, including an unflinching realism of both setting and character studded with elements of the bizarre: Forbes Abbot's own Church of the Near at Hand, in which one medium claims she's communed with Dennis's killer is only one small example. The naked greed of the Lawson's daughter, Polly, will also make the reader sit up and take note.

Miss Lemon must report, however, a few small flaws that mar the perfection of this mystery. The narrative is quite bloated, and the reader finds herself more than 150 pages in before the first murder occurs. It isn't until page 250 or so that Inspector Barnaby makes his (now long awaited) appearance. And more than one character is a bit overdrawn in her human frailty. Carey's bereaved companion, Benny, for example, is hardly more complex than the village idiot of yore. And Kate, while wholly believable, is a bit too sanctimonious for Miss Lemon's taste.

But these are small quibbles and in no way prevent Miss Lemon from recommending A Ghost in the Machine as a thoroughly entertaining summer read.

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