Monday, April 30, 2012

The Bee's Kiss by Barbara Cleverly (An Inspector Joe Sandilands mystery)

A Bee’s Kiss, the first installment in Barbara Cleverly’s delightful Joe Sandilands series in which the detective is (finally) back in London, is one of the best mysteries the character series sub-genre has to offer.

And make no mistake: I am speaking specifically of the mystery (i.e. the plot) of who killed the passionate, volatile, redheaded socialite-Wren in her suite at the Ritz. (The Ritz in the 1920s? Aside from a candle-lit Victorian library, does the backdrop get any better?)

As a longtime armchair sleuth, I don’t usually put a lot of effort into figuring whodunit—after all, I read character series to relax.

For me, the various investigators—Ian Rutledge, Charles Lennox, Barker and Llewellyn, Maise Dobbs, Bess Crawford, Jane Austen, Jeremy Proctor—are friends of a sort among whom I make regular rounds. When I read another installment in their respective series, in my mind I am dropping in on the good detective, cuppa in hand and ready to be regaled with another of their war stories.

For that reason, character development has a tendency to stick in my head more than the details about the actual cases being solved. I have only hazy memories of some of the specific cases I've enjoyed in the past, but recurring characters remain sharp and vivid in my mind long after those details fade. 

That will not be the case with this Sandilands installment. 

The Ritz (now the Ritz-Carlton) in Manhattan, where the mystery begins. 
In this case, I was surprised not only by whodunit but several other things besides.

Cleverly, who in the previous books has given absorbing, sweeping portraits of life in the British Raj, (ranging from the smoldering Pathun tensions to the cloistered, suppressed life of a sheik’s wife--one among several-- to the sweltering, gem-draped parties of the British nobility during the depths of the Indian summer) proves no less capable of pulling the reader through time when writing about Sandilands in London.
The heady twenties, with its liberated women, radical art movement, subtle wealth decay encroaching on the guardians of “Old Money,” and vaguest whispers of impending war are all skillfully woven into one of the most simple—yet complex—mysteries I’ve ever come across.

Even one who isn’t a regular reader of Sandilands series, or a fan of the period, can find themselves turning pages just to keep up with the continually twisting labyrinth of clues. The reader is easily razzle-dazzled by the variety of settings--a poor Russian neighborhood, the tree-lined avenues of the upper-crusts, a country estate home to a happily dysfunctional family--and doesn't mind one bit that they only add to the perplexing nature of the clues that are revealed. 

This is one not to be missed, and has permanently set to rest any qualms I may have had about Sandilands finally making it back to London. Clearly, no matter where the intrepid, romantic, and shrewd detective is, Cleverly’s writing will ensure we enjoy watching him solve the case. 

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