In Cases of Murder is the fourth Bunch Courtney novel by Jan Edwards, though the first I have read. As such, I approached it with a little bit of trepidation. I needn’t have worried about the backstory though; each book stands alone in terms of its central mystery. The characterisation is clear, the dialogue snappy, and the relationships neatly sketched out in a proper show-don’t-tell fashion. Previously established plot points, such as the military occupation of the Courtney residence and how Bunch began working with the police in the first place, are all dealt with swiftly and at appropriate moments. And – thankfully – where developments do occur in relationships, we are given enough context to understand the direction of travel.
Before I dig into my review, I should qualify that this isn’t my usual genre, so mileage may vary for crime (and history) buffs. I have been known to dally with detective fiction on occasion, but the closest I’ve come to cosy crime is on the TV. It’s an odd but entertaining evolution of the standard set up, comforting the audience through trope-familiarity, humour, and neat solutions. Ongoing consequences are rare and the trauma inherent to the crimes is barely alluded to. Even the puzzles and solutions sink somewhat into the warp and weft of the whole in favour of tone, relationships, and character quirks. Foyle’s War is probably the key touchstone to bear in mind when it comes to the Bunch Courtney Investigations. Whilst there are many differences in the fine detail, both are set in the rural south of England during WWII and each centre a female character who is redefining their place in the world through employment, earning the respect of male counterparts.
On to the book in question. I am happy to report that I enjoyed In Cases of Murder. As its title wryly flags, the mystery begins when bodies start turning up stuffed into large steamer cases at various train stations. Most of the corpses have had their heads and hands removed, making them all but impossible to identify. However, the killer seems to have been disturbed during his latest attack, abandoning the girl with her parts all intact. She was the daughter of Charles Jarman, an industrialist with military ties. Since consulting detective Rose ‘Bunch’ Courtney has a social connection to the family, Chief Inspector Wright urges her to help penetrate the veil of secrecy surrounding the Jarmans. Has the ‘Pretty Feet’ killer returned? Is high level corruption or espionage at the heart of this? Who has the critical piece of evidence and where have they hidden it? As the duo get to work, they uncover a steamy local scandal, gangland tensions, and a mysterious, murderous foreigner.
The book is pacy and the characters are engaging, but I must confess that I struggled a little with the plot. On the one hand it seemed very simple, with the characters circling a few locations, gradually building up a picture of what had occurred (interspersed with some lovely character work focused of grief, but I’ll get into that later). On the other hand, some of the curveballs thrown in to spice things up seemed so outlandish in context, they demanded more time and attention than they actually got. Added to this minor frustration was the degree to which certain critical elements were handled off the page, with just the results of certain investigations reported. It all tied together in the end, revealing who did what and why, but I didn’t find that aspect to be wholly satisfying. As a naïve visitor to the subgenre, I can’t quite decide if the sensation of it being an investigation on rails is a feature or a bug. I should also add that the version I read was an Advanced Reader Copy, so I acknowledge that some elements may have been clarified or better seeded in the final published version.
What worked – and worked well – was the interaction between characters, the inner lives of whom we intuit throughout. It is apparent early on that Bunch is a posh girl from a wealthy background but, whilst it’s certainly true to say that she uses her privilege to help solve the case, the manner in which she conducts herself is pretty *endearing. Anyway, she’s a pragmatist unafraid to roll up her sleeves and get her hands dirty. I sensed (or decided?) that Bunch is rather embarrassed about the whole social class structure thing and is perhaps in denial about how much **she depends on it. If so, I suspect this tension between inherited background and personal values is in fact the point of the book. We are invited to compare and contrast three generations of Courtney women as they go through a shared trauma: the impending death of Bunch’s mother. The writing here is sensitive, minutely observant of the alternate ways people deal with the weight of grief-to-come, and in these moments I found it deeply moving.
CI Wright is taciturn by contrast, a serious man in a serious position, struggling with the red tape that binds him. He is a foil rather than a partner, there to do the boring procedural stuff in the background while Bunch gets on with the sparring and intuitive leaps. There are some intimations that he has developed feelings for Bunch over the course of the previous books but, if so, they are kept hard in check. He’s far too restrained and professional to let such things get in the way of his job. Romance of sorts is provided by another figure from Bunch’s past, a man who has certain expectations based on their families’ machinations, who holds a certain (though denied) attraction for our upper-class detective. It’s another tension set up, between tradition and preference, position and profession, which helps to hold things together nicely, but one played out as a long game, of prime interest to those who are following the series as a whole.
Will that be me in future? I’m not sure. It was fun to spend some time in the company of Bunch and Wright, but something about this particular case failed to grab me. Fundamentally it’s a book of two halves, and I found that they did not sit easily together. Less time spent on the family pains would have given more space for the crime to be investigated and properly unfurled. However, the personal elements are the parts that most engaged and resonated with me, so I would be loath to suggest any trimming was in order. In the end, it comes down to your taste and your history with the series. If you have enjoyed the earlier books – Winter Downs, In Her Defence, and Listed Dead – you will already be invested enough in the character to enjoy this indulgence. If you are new to the series, this is perhaps not the best jumping on point.
Nevertheless, I shall keep my eyes out for future volumes, and if I hear particularly good things about one of them, I’ll have another go.
That’s all from me for now. I’ll see you again soon.
Roger and out.
* Though she’s no Phryne Fisher.
** Quite a lot – in this book at least.