The second in the Hampstead Murders series opens with a sudden death at an iconic local venue, which some of the team believe may be connected with an unsolved murder featuring Cold War betrayals worthy of George Smiley. It soon emerges that none other than Agatha Christie herself may be the key witness who is able to provide the missing link.
As with its bestselling predecessor, Death in Profile, the book develops the lives and loves of the team at ‘Hampstead Nick’. While the next phase of a complicated love triangle plays itself out, the protagonists, struggling to crack not one but two apparently insoluble murders, face issues of national security in working alongside Special Branch.
For lovers of traditional ‘whodunits’ this book will be a welcome sight to compete with the proliferation of grit lit and psychological thrillers that are currently on the market. If those latter are your preferred genres then I’d suggest this book might be a little too tame for you. However, for lovers of mysteries and police procedurals this is a refreshing change. It’s a self-confessed homage to the Golden Age mysteries of the 20’s and 30’s, defined by writers such as Christie, Allingham, Tey, Sayers and Crispin among others. It follows the well established conventions and clichés of the genre but with a major twist – it has a contemporary setting.
The story basically follows the search for the killer of Peter Howse, researcher and manager of the Burgh House Museum/Gallery who has the misfortune of being battered to death. A number of suspects emerge and it would appear to be a straightforward case of proving/breaking alibi’s, confirming facts and ruling out the possibility of a passing tramp, another nod to the Golden Age. However, the discovery of another body, killed many decades earlier, but with connections to the current victim’s research, as well as one of the witnesses, throws the case open. It also has an intriguing link to Agatha Christie herself, whose additional regret might have been she didn’t get to solve this case.
As I have not read the first book I was not up to speed with the quirky and somewhat genteel approach to policing. Indeed not just the policing, but the tangled relationships of some of the investigating officers. Readers of the first book will be party to a developing relationship that progresses with this book, with a rather too ‘civilised’ solution being proposed if you ask me! As with the plot line the characters are also a mix. The officers have their modern-day complaints of graduate officers being over promoted, stretched budgets, station closures and management re-shuffles, yet they also have an exceptionally high knowledge of ‘Golden Age’ principles, methodologies and authors, on which they are sometimes too ready to expound.
While I’ll admit it did take a little while to settle into the style with its hybrid mix of ‘Golden Age’ and contemporary I did enjoy it. Essentially once I’d stopped reading and over thinking with a 21st century, policing head on and settled into the who dunit and why with its whimsical hark backs, it stopped feeling anachronistic and started to feel natural. From then on it was a relaxing and satisfying journey through the investigation , with numerous clues and red herrings carefully but not obviously placed along the way. The guilty party, once revealed, made sense and was suitably in keeping with the conventions of the genre.
So, if you want a good police procedural with the modern themes of multiple bodies, office politics and tangled relationships but offered in a more refined and polite milieu then this is definitely a series for you. I’m looking forward to the next installment and need to acquaint myself with book 1 to bring me fully up to speed.
A review copy was kindly provided by the publisher Urbane.