What is it with these pretentious mystery titles, anyway? Is there a formula I’m not privy to? Does the title have to somehow signal “murder mystery?” Why couldn’t this perfectly fine novel simply have been called “Death on the Thames?” Would that have been too Agatha Christie-ish? Just thinking here, about Susan Hill’s The Betrayal of Trust and Elizabeth George’s Believing the Lie and even the weird English translations of Fred Vargas’ titles like Seeking Whom He May Devour instead of the literal “The Inside-Out Man.” (The French is L’Homme à l’envers.)
OK, I’ve got that off my chest. And perhaps the titles don’t marry much when you’re Deborah Crombie and you’re delivering the latest installment in the Gemma James/Duncan Kincaid series of procedural mysteries. Readers like me will just anticipate and ask for “the latest Deborah Crombie.” And then when we look at our shelves to figure out if we’ve read it, we’ll remember that it’s the one set in Henley, focused on rowing. And we never will remember what the heck it was called.
Actually I have a couple of bones to pick with this book,but they’re routine complaints. Part of the appeal of Crombie’s series has always been the extra-criminal story, especially Gemma and Duncan’s halting progress to romance. But in No Mark Upon Her, the balance between murder and personal life seemed weighted too heavily to personal, with cameo appearances by an enormous cast of walk-on characters. (Gemma’s parents! Her former landlady Hazel, and her estranged husband Tim! Wait, there’s Wesley Howard and his mother Betty! Oops, they’re gone…)
I also get the sense sometimes that writers of long-running series feel compelled to find ever-more-exotic settings for their novels. Heck, even Fred Vargas has sent Adamsberg to the Alps, to Canada, and to Serbia. There’s sometimes a faint instructional tone in Crombie’s background material, as in her 2004 novel Now May You Weep, set in the world of Highland Scotland whiskey distilling. This time around, we’re in the world of competitive rowing, as Becca Meredith, a one-time champion sculler, is found dead not far from the famous Leander Club in Henley-on-Thames, England. Not that I mind rowing, or Leander, or the famous Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge, which ends up playing a part. Nor did I mind the slightly under-digested material about Search and Rescue dogs, who also figure in the tale. The various elements just didn’t quite seem to mesh as seamlessly as is normal in Crombie’s books.
That being said, this is a solid, readable diversion, full of sympathetic characters (except for the baddies) and interesting settings. One of Crombie’s great gifts is her ability to swiftly sketch characters. Here, the Iraq war veteran (yes, the Brits have them too, remember?) Kieran Connolly, Becca’s former lover, wins the instant-sympathy vote without a hint of sentimentality. And the rescue dogs, of course, are delightful.