Mischief managed: The Play That Goes Wrong at Canterbury’ Marlowe Theatre

Anarchy, chaos, a missing ledger: no, not another day in the whirligig of the current political climate. Marking a return to live theatre, The Play That Goes Wrong burst back to manic life at Canterbury’s Marlowe Theatre recently, as the curtain finally lifted on the first opportunity to bring live performance and live audiences together once more.

The Marlowe Theatre: image venue website

It seemed somehow entirely appropriate that, at a time full of conflicting information, confusing government guidelines, political U-turns and a sense of life going off the rails, a play in which everything that can go wrong, will, was the first play presented to live audiences. The relief was palpable, and not only amongst those of us seated in the auditorium – there were immensely heartfelt thanks expressed by the cast to the audience at the end of the performance, for their willingness to come back in support of live arts again.

Mischief, mischief everywhere! Tour poster

Embracing everything from insecure props to a misplaced ledger and twerking; in a climate (political and geographical…) that increasingly seems to be falling apart, a play which celebrates that very aspect of life, its unpredictability, moments of slapstick, was hugely appropriate, and perhaps offered us the chance to look upon chaos and, for the first time in a long while, to find ourselves able to laugh at it after all. An enthusiastic audience was alive to every nuance, every moment of slapstick and buffoonery delivered with perfect timing by a hard-working cast.

The Play That Goes Wrong will be wreaking havoc across venues on its UK tour until late November – details here.

#HeadSpace: culture in lockdown: part four

Welcome to part four of our new feature, #HeadSpace, sharing ideas for cultural activities during these challenging times; from great reads to gripping TV, binge-worthy boxed-sets to stream and ideas for listening (from music you might know to music you might not and some Slow Radio), aiming to keep you engaged, entertained and maybe even amused whether you’re isolating, in lockdown, or simply looking for ways to keep occupied.


As I sit at the keyboard this morning, I admit I’ve found it quite hard to get going today. The view from the window is grey and cold, the leafless trees dark silhouettes against a bleak sky. So this morning’s episode from the wonderful Radio Lento arrived at just the right moment, taking the ears out to a dawn soundscape on the moors in the Peak District.

A moorside view on a May morning in the Peak District
Image via Radio Lento

 

I would normally have been well into the bracing soundworld of some contemporary music by now, but this morning’s headspace found it difficult to make room for it after a night plagued by insomnia. So this sonic trip to a different space, a different season, a different soundscape is just what was required. It’s been playing on loop since I came to the desk, and has opened doors into the day. What a wonderful way to begin the day; invigorating, refreshing, and perhaps a glimpse into a brighter time lying only a few months ahead. Listen here.

That’s all to this post; that’s all we need for today. That’s it. Enjoy the sound of summer.

#HeadSpace: culture in lockdown: Part Three

Welcome to the third in our new series, #HeadSpace, sharing ideas for cultural activities during these challenging times; from great reads to gripping TV, binge-worthy boxed-sets to stream and ideas for listening (from music you might know to music you might not and some Slow Radio), aiming to keep you engaged, entertained and maybe even amused whether you’re isolating, in lockdown, or looking for ways to keep occupied.


All good clean fun until someone loses an eye…or worse…

Riveting Reads: for a dark, modern take on the campus novel, or even just a noirish thriller, Black Chalk offers a fascinating tale of what happens when a game gets out of control and the impact on friendship. As the book unfolds, what initially began as a game of ‘dare’ between six university friends spirals gradually out of control as the forfeits become progressively more harsh; told in flashback, the novel builds inexorably towards the conclusion as, fourteen years later, the two remaining players must meet to bring the grim game to a conclusion. Gripping and well-constructed, open the book and join the game for yourself…

Winning Watchables: for some neat bubble-gum crime watching, Criminal Minds on Amazon Prime is highly watchable. Each episode covers the solving of a case by Jason Gideon and his team of FBI agents, who use behavioural profiling techniques to capture criminals. The team’s unusual technique of building a profile based on the criminal’s psychology and predicted behaviour is usually met with bucketloads of contempt by local law enforcement, which is then won over at the denouement when Gideon’s methods prove successful. Not half as macabre as Hannibal, there’s always a sense of satisfaction as each episode nearly wraps up another baffling serial spree; if you can get past the slightly pretentious “[A-Famous-Philosopher] once wrote…” quote with which each episode begins, which becomes a trifle wearisome by the second or third series (!), it’s worth a look.


Our third Lockdown Listening recommendation steps into the strange, hypnotic, cinematic, sometimes otherworldy, sometimes meditative world of the American composer/performer Meredith Monk; one of the major figures on the American compositional landscape since the 1960s, Monk has been fiercely creative as a composer, singer, choreographer, filmmaker, writing music that sometimes defies neat categorisation. Her album Impermanence from 2008 moves from the opening fragility of Last Song through the lisome vocal tapestries of Passage and the quirky, hopping Particular Dance. Start with that track and see what you think – on Spotify here.

Chilling games, satisfying crime-solving, unclassifiable music;  stay tuned for the next in the series; hope you’ve found something new.


Header image: Darwn Vegher via Unsplash

#HeadSpace: culture in lockdown: Part Two

Welcome to a wintry second episode of our new feature, #HeadSpace, sharing ideas for cultural activities during these challenging times; from great reads to gripping TV, binge-worthy boxed-sets to stream and ideas for listening (from music you might know to music you might not and some Slow Radio), aiming to keep you engaged, entertained and maybe even amused whether you’re isolating, in lockdown, or simply looking for ways to keep occupied.


Book cover
Dare you take a look…

Riveting Reads: winter is a great time to read a ghost story or two; when the nights are dark and cold and the past seems to rise to the surface and be within touching-distance, somehow a ghost story fits the season – perhaps as an antidote to all the jollity and over-indulgence of Christmas… Two short novellas by Susan Hill, The Mist in the Mirror and The Man in the Picture fit perfectly into winter-night reading, written by the author of The Woman in Black. Hill’s stories sit firmly within the tradition of the great MR James, suitably atmospheric and told at one remove to create a sense of I-heard-it-from-someone-who-heard-it-from. She writes evocatively – fog-shrouded Gothic houses, menacing Viennese carnival – although, for me, there was something slightly underwhelming about the ending to each story, a sort of ‘Wait, was that IT ?’ that left me somewhat confused, as though I’d misread them. But that might just be me; and the atmosphere permeating each book is worth the read alone.

Top TV: not for Dickens purists, and even though Christmas is over (or if you don’t want to let it go quite yet…), take a walk through the dark Victorian streets of the 2019 BBC three-part adaptation of another ghost story, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Made by the creator of Peaky Blinders (which may or may not put you off…), it’s a darkly fascinating take on the classic seasonal tale starring Guy Pearce as the curmudgeonly Scrooge, and includes Andy Serkis as a truly menacing Ghost of Christmas Past. There’s a lot of back-story building explaining how Scrooge and Marley made their fortune at the expense of others, and an interesting shift where (without giving too much away), women have a critical, more powerful role than in the book; but there are some fabulous conceits, and the image of a terrifying Ghost of Christmas Part burning all the Christmas trees, decorations and toys of previous years in a huge bonfire in a a desolate, wintry landscape is striking and memorable. Not for those who prefer faithful adaptations of Dickens’ masterpiece, but for an engaging re-imagining, this is worth watching – on iPlayer for the next few weeks.

 

Our second Lockdown Listening recommendation is a late period Chet Baker album, No Problem, a mellow, relaxed, middle-of-the-road disc featuring the great Danish bassist, Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, with all the tracks written by pianist Duke Jordan.

Admittedly, the album doesn’t push any boundaries or take any great risks – it’s more of a ‘comfortable’ listen, with all the players well inside their comfort-zones. Chet is by now over his brash, vigorous post-bop days – perhaps he never really recovered after his teeth were knocked out in a brawl in the mid-60s – and is into the last stage of his career (he would die nine years later, in 1988.) The opening track mixes Latin and swing; Sultry Eve is a gentle ballad, Chet blowing in a fragile state through a harmon mute; Glad I Met Pat is a graceful jazz waltz; The Fuzz is a gentle nod to the post-Bop era; and the final track features Chet’s inimtable, love-it-or-hate-it scat singing. If you’re looking for a jazz album that’s a classic masterpiece, you won’t find it here; but if you are looking for a comfortable, easy listen, you can’t go far wrong with this one. On Spotify here.

Wintry words, a chilling retake on a classic tale, relaxed swing; happy New Year, stay tuned for the next in the series; hope you’ve found something new.

 

#HeadSpace: culture in lockdown: part one

Welcome to the first episode of our new feature, #HeadSpace, sharing ideas for cultural activities during these challenging times; from great reads to gripping TV, binge-worthy boxed-sets to stream and ideas for listening (from music you might know to music you might not and some Slow Radio), hopefully there’ll be something for everyone as the series unfolds, to keep you engaged, entertained and maybe even amused whether you’re isolating, in lockdown, or looking for ways to keep occupied.

Book cover for City of Mirrors
City of Mirrors brings Cronin’s epic trilogy to a triumphant close

Riveting Reads: maybe a little too close to the mark at the moment, but for a riveting post-apocalyptic read, Justin Cronin’s The Passage trilogy is an enthralling , sweeping sequence charting the story of a virus accidentally unleashed across the world (sounds familiar at the moment!), and one man’s desperate bid to find a cure as the world is overrun by vampires. Unfolding across three sprawling novels, the secret heart of the whole sequence unfurls in the third book, The City of Mirrors, with a love-story reminiscent of the campus-driven setting of Brideshead Revisited.

Top TV: if apocalyptic vampire tales aren’t for you, try the festive (or otherwise) mirth of the Goes Wrong Show; the series following the accident-ridden mock amateur theatrical productions has been a big hit, and all seven episodes are currently available on iPlayer. Last Christmas’ The Spirit of Christmas, including a drunken Santa, an elf stuck in a chimney and a snowman almost engulfed by a present-making machine, is still there to watch, and this season’s disaster-laden retelling of The Nativity is also jolly entertaining. All available on iPlayer here.

If you don’t want to let go of Christmas quite yet and still have room for post-festive cheer, our Lockdown Listening recommendation evokes the spirit of the Golden Age of Big Bands with the swinging jollity of Jamie Cullum’s The Pianoman at Christmas. In the spirit of the Good Old Days of big band swing and the classic crooning of Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin, Cullum’s seasonal offering ranges from the bold swagger of So Many Santas and Hang Your Lights to the surprisingly intimate title-track and How Do You Fly. If you’re looking for a suitably upbeat album to play as the soundtrack to your stay-at-home January, this might just be the thing – here on Spotify.

And if you haven’t found something this time, don’t worry, tune in for the second episode coming soon for non-seasonal suggestions. Stay safe and well…

Header image: Darwin Vegher / Unsplash

 

#HeadSpace: new culture corner keeping you company during Lockdown

We’re very pleased to be launching #HeadSpace, a new cultural corner featuring books, music, television, streamed entertainment and other online content to explore during Lockdown 3.0. #HeadSpace will be a regular feature sharing cultural avenues  to keep you engaged, entertained and possibly even enlightened as the coming days unfold.

From Riveting Reads to Top TV, Lockdown Listening and Winning Watches, the feature will create a sort of cultural oasis, with hopefully  something here for everyone. We’ll be sharing one of each as the feature appears (with links), with the hope that there will be something to amuse, occupy, and keep you company during the coming months.

Look after yourselves, stay safe, and enjoy our regular selection of offerings; a sort of cultural Quality Street…! First one coming shortly…

Image: Darwin Vegher via Unsplash

 

A mirror to its own community: the latest Whitstable Pearl novel is a hymn to the decline of the printed word

The antagonism between the old and the new lies at the heart of Murder on the Downs, the latest (and strangely prophetic) chapter in the developing ‘Whitstable Pearl’ series of crime novels by Julie Wassmer. It permeates the book – in its people, in places, in ways of thinking. This tension is distilled into what is the real issue at the centre of the book – the clash between technology and the printed word. Pearl Nolan, restaurant-owner-cum-private-detective is constantly checking her smartphone, reading the latest features from the local newspaper, the Chronicle, online long before the published headlines hit The Street. Internet turnaround is leaner, faster, and more readily available than newspapers.

It’s also about the tension between the older generation and the young; whilst Pearl is efficiently navigating her smartphone to read the latest revelations about the case, or texting DCI McGuire (with whom she shares both the investigation as well as her heart), it’s her mother, Dolly, who resorts to picking up and reading an actual newspaper. Although the novel relies on the traditional murder and investigation as its narrative outline, the driving force is its head-on look at media power – the influence it wields, its ability to sway minds, and the lengths people will go to in order to create and control headlines.

The central theme of the book concerns the threat to a stretch of countryside by a proposed property development. Wassmer presents a nicely-balanced view from both sides of the argument – those who would protect history and those who advocate for necessary change, in this case the building of affordable homes for a younger generation increasingly forced out of Whitstable by its spiralling house prices. ‘Progress doesn’t have to be a dirty word,’ argues one of its advocates. But there’s a deep-seated desire to protect the area, which mobilises a group of protestors.

‘Throughout history, people have always fought for what they value. Rarely is it given – it has to be earned – and defended with determination, commitment and strength of purpose.’

Reading that clarion-call in the current climate of crumbling arts and the collapse of opera-houses, theatres and concert-halls under the impact of COVID-19 felt prophetic – it feels like a highly appropriate time to be reading the book. As Martha, one of the main characters, observes: ‘Do nothing and there’ll never be change. But everything we do – or we don’t do – makes a difference.’

Wassmer controls the pace and set-pieces of the drama well; the set-piece of the medieval pageant atop the downs has a nice cinematic feel, leading into the lighting of the beacon to symbolise the protest’s public beginning. There’s a Gothic denouement atop the Black Mill (a genuine former working mill that stands at the top of Borstal Hill – location and geographical accuracy remains a constant throughout the series, and is a major aspect of the appeal of the books both for local reader as well as aspiring literary visitors), complete with flashes of lightning and ominous thunder. And the Black Mill is again a significant emblem of the old-versus-new dynamic – standing in the mill, Pearl is afforded a view of the estuary, in whose waters stands the modern wind-farm, its red lights glowing in the darkness. There are also some gently comic touches; a moment of, if not coitus interruptus, then coitus notquitestartedus in a secluded meadow, and a nicely tart dig at a paper’s presumption of impartiality:

“We do try to give a balanced view on most issues.”
“You mean you like to sit on the fence to please both parties ?”

The mill; the silver Lexus (and it always IS a silver Lexus); the wind farm; the ancient woodland of Benacre Wood; the historic Crown on the Downs; like pieces in the chess game which is also a theme in the novel, these elements are, as much as the characters themselves, symbols of the town and its identity, the traditional and historic (such as the remnants of the historic Blean Woods) pitched against the silver Lexus, a metaphor for all the DFLs (Down From Londoners) who have no respect for the town’s way of life.

So, the book turns out to be (as one might expect from a writer) a hymn to the passing of newspapers and the decline of the printed word as the internet becomes increasingly widespread. “In the last fifteen years over two hundred local newspapers have disappeared in the country, and more than half the towns have no local newspaper at all” reflects Chris Latimer, whose family own the local Chronicle. “A good local paper holds a mirror to its own community.” A sentiment true not just of this book, but also of the unfolding series as a whole.

Maybe the smartphone is the real sinister figure casting a shadow across the whole the novel after all…

Murder on the Downs is published by Little, Brown UK.

The Red Dirt Road as a dark Wizard of Oz: Amity and Sorrow by Peggy Riley

The first novel from Kent-based American author, Peggy Riley, Amity and Sorrow is a mesmerising exploration of the tension between the familiar and the unknown, of extremes of faith and the lengths to which people can be caught up in the fantasies of others.

The central figure, Amaranth, escapes with her two daughters from a cult, a fiercely isolated community led by her husband and his forty-nine other wives, and literally crashes into a world where they are confronted by an unfamiliar modernity. One daughter, Amity, embraces the flight, tentatively grasping the new-found opportunities offered by Bradley, the farmer who offers them refuge; the other, Sorrow, wants to return to her father, for reasons that slowly become clear as the book unfolds.

There are many good things about the novel, which is couched in a beautifully-wrought prose that seems to chime and dance with the same care for language manifest in Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood or the novels of Joanne Harris. The beguiling triple-metre of the opening – ‘Amity watches what looks like the sun’ – typically sets the tone for the way it unfolds, part poem, part prose, part vision. Indeed, the prose so often treads the boundary of poetry that it’s easy to forget that it’s still a novel; ‘…to check that her daughters are safe in their blankets, all flung limbs and linen.’ Or the almost-musical cadences of ‘the white horse and red horse, the black horse and pale horse, the martyrs and saints and the stars crashing down.’

Sometimes, with its evocation of the arid dustscape of Oklahoma, the prose speaks in the voice of Joni Mitchell blowing in across the desert, a literary Hejira. ‘The land was hard and the people harder, but the sounds of the night were of sand switchbacking beneath snake-bellies, the cries of coyotes, the lonesome who-who-who of a horned owl from a Joshua tree.’ The atmosphere is painted in short, deft strokes that say much with little and hint at further darkness, with assonance, alliteration and rhythm all busily working together beneath the surface of the prose, yet in a way that never becomes intrusive.

At other times, it is not what’s said, but what is left missing that gives so much of the prose its gentle yet unbearable weight. ‘He hums his way into the kitchen with a tune she can almost remember, from long ago, something about love and dancing.’

Riley never lets the reader forget about the essential human fable unfolding against the scenery, though. The way the focus pulls from a panoramic sweep across dusty crop-fields to reflections framed in a window makes the reader aware, all the time, of context, of the human saga unfolding against the wider landscape. ‘Let us remember that every child can change the world,’ a glimpse of a Universal Truth beneath the horror.

At one point, the book becomes delightfully Hitchcockian. ‘Amaranth carries a bowl of plain cooked rice up the stairs. She does not know what she will find behind the locked door. She can almost picture Bradley’s wife there, imprisoned for threatening to leave, now deranged and knocking, wasting away.’

For all the bleakness, there are occasional moments of real humour, which provide wonderful moments of contrast.

“Ain’t you hot with that thing on your head? It’s makin’ me hot.”
She leans on the threshold. “It’s for Saint Paul.”
“Patron saint of hats? ”

Elsewhere, passages dip and lilt with the half-memory of nursery-rhyme: ‘She isn’t in the bathroom, isn’t splashing at the sink. She runs past the pump to the red dirt road but there is no Sorrow, no dust cloud of her running.’  And some passages hiss with sibilance, pop with consonants: ‘Her clogs totter over furrows between bristle-topped grasses, yellowing, crisp and whispery on her skirts as she brushes past.’

The further the reader is drawn into the book, the more it becomes less a novel than an extended incantation. Often, a real sense of menace hovers above the rhythmic step of the prose:

‘Amaranth holds a paring knife, bone-handled and sharp from a kitchen drawer.’…

a sensation which Riley draws out over much of the book; in fact, it  takes just over three hundred pages for the latent menace which hangs over the novel to manifest itself – and when it does, the effect is utterly terrifying.

At the novel’s conclusion, the reader is left somehow with the sense that this has been a darker Wizard of Oz; sepia-tinged grasslands, the Red Dirt Road instead of the Yellow Brick one leading to a more menacing place than the Emerald City, although ultmately there is hope. It is a riveting tale, woven in a way that dances and spins across the page, part-prose, part-poetry, hovering like a nursery-rhyme, panoramic in scope and delivered almost cinematically but with the fragility of fraught human relationships at its heart. Riley fords the Red Dirt Road; readers who follow are in for a memorable experience.

Amity and Sorrow was published by Tinder Press in 2013.

Breaking bread with monsters: a dark Immorality Play from Lisa Cutts

The world is, alas, not straightforward – choices are hard, mistakes are made, doubts are cast and events in the past shape and often warp the future; all elements captured in Mercy Killing, by crime writer and real-life detective, Lisa Cutts. Centred around the murder of a known paedophile, Cutts deliberately muddies the waters throughout the novel, crafting a story that makes the reader’s reactions to characters less than straightforward, playing on our unease.

What Cutts is exploring in the novel, a gritty, urban police procedural informed by her own experiences as an investigating detective, is the idea that bad things can come from good intentions, a concept which affects all the characters involved in the drama, and which sees each of them grappling with their own conflicts and making uncomfortable liaisons. At the head of the case, DI Powell is fully aware that, to solve the case, he must ‘break bread with a monster,’ and knows precisely the moment when he crosses the line.  His personal dance with the devil involves a meeting with the less than wholesome Martha, who leads the Volunteer Army,  a group of local people which at first seems to have a positive mandate –  those involved are ‘trying to make it as safe for people as they can about living with sex offenders around them and we want to work with the police. We’re trying to do our bit to help.’ Yet urban vigilantes taking the law into their own hands is never a good idea, and later in the book the reason for the creation of the group is revealed, arising as it does from yet another evil beginning.

DC Sophia Ireland’s own stance on pursuing criminals neatly outlines the whole moral dilemma of the book: ‘we can’t live in a society that thinks it’s ok to kill them off without so much as a trial.’ She has a firm grasp of the the crux of the book right there – the battle between justice and righteousness. But she in turn has an internal conflict: she is not convinced that DC Gabrielle Royston is suited to investigating the case, but does not want to betray a colleague – and Royston’s own situation is not clear-cut, either…

Writing from experience: Lisa Cutts

For all the grim issues the novel confronts, they are balanced by touches of humour throughout the story. One of the threads running through the plot is Powell’s slowly unravelling marriage – a situation arising, it becomes clear, again out of the best of intentions; in one scene, he returns late from work yet again, and undresses next to his wife in the hope that there might be an amorous encounter. ‘ ‘Don’t roll your bloody socks into a ball.’ Her words were accompanied by the sound of her turning over, and the click of the light switch…Sex was certainly off.’

From the outset, Cutts creates a series of characters, none of whom has a clear-cut status that is morally right or wrong. The reader is left unsure where to place their sympathies, and is thereby drawn into the depths of a web of moral ambiguity. Each suspect – and some of the police, too – has a stain on their character, which only becomes clear as the novel unfolds, but each has some element of their background, some aspect to their story, that means a straight and outright condemnation by the reader is not possible. It’s an effective device that pulls the reader onwards, leading them through what might be called an ‘immorality play,’ a darkly intricate tale where, as one of the characters observes early in the novel, even though the case may be solved and justice brought, there can be no winners.

Mercy Killing is the first in Cutts’ East Rise Incident Room series,  published by Simon and Schuster in 2016

Crabbed Age and Youth: a slow maturing of style in Murder on the Pilgrims Way

The fourth book in the developing Whitstable Pearl series of crime novels by Julie Wassmer, Murder on the Pilgrims Way, is a meditation on age, as perhaps is fitting for an evolving canon that, in this its fourth instalment, reaches a new level of maturity and literary accomplishment.

Taking her heroine out of both her seaside town of Whitstable and her usual haunt of Canterbury, Wassmer instead opts to place her in an idyllic rural retreat near Chartham, setting the scene for that classic of the crime genre, the Country House Murder. It is a bold move, placing the book directly in the lineage of a British literay tradition reaching from Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and J Jefferson Farjeon to later luminaries such as PD James and Reginald Hill. This affords plenty of opportunities for vivid description of rural scenes and lakeside trysts which perfectly capture the lazy haze of an English countryside lulled by summer’s warmth, as well as giving Wassmer the opportunity to explore a more focused arena.

The preoccupation with age and the impact of growing older is an element which operates beneath the novel’s surface, but underpins the narrative, in particular the gradual evolution of the character of its heroine, private detective-cum-restaurant owner, Pearl Nolan. This time, we see her struggling to come to terms with her own growing redundancy both to her restaurant, which is increasingly able to manage without her, and to her son, Charlie, who is living an independent life studying at university, but who returns occasionally to work at the restaurant, thereby bringing together and magnifying those two elements which are the focus of Pearl’s life, but which are able to function without her involvement. Pearl is acutely aware of this herself, at one point reflecting that ‘having turned forty she felt as if she was entering a new era, the second act of a play in which she was the main character, but unsure of her role.’ Elsewhere, other characters reflect that ‘that’s the nature of growing older, isn’t it ? Somehow our roles are always reversed.’ The central playboy character, Nico Caruso, is a celebrity chef who trades on his youthful good looks, contrasting with Marshall, the godfather to the lady who owns the country house at which the story unfolds, who is elderly and walks with a cane. The mill at Chartham, visible from the gardens of the estate, is ‘old enough to be mentioned in the Domesday Book;’ later in the novel, Old Harry, ‘the oldest bell in the Cathedral,’ is heard to ring. Excavations at a local field connected with medieval shipping unearth ‘an ancient boat…but apparently it disintegrated on contact with the air.’ The fragility of age, and of history, lies like the buried boat not far below the prose’s summer-hued surface as the world ‘old’ tolls like the cathedral bell throughout the novel.

Pearls of wisdom: author Julie Wassmer

The character who could provide meaningful focus for an increasingly isolated Pearl, but with whom she cannot quite make things happen, is DCI McGuire, with whom she has been fencing romantically since the first novel. McGuire is still wrestling with his status as an outsider, as a Down From Londoner, since his relocation to Canterbury, although for him this is ‘something behind which he could hide.’ The constant conflict between the local and the outsider is a recurrent theme throughout the books, and a useful means of generating tension both on the larger, social, scale, as well as between Pearl and McGuire themselves. McGuire, too, cannot escape the issue of aging, as he nostalgically reflects on ‘the lyrics to an old pop song’ and his floundering relationship with Pearl.

The classic plot device of assembling all the suspects together in one place for the final denouement, arising in a pleasingly organic manner from the nature of the novel’s central theme of a week-long cookery course, builds the tension nicely  towards the end and allows Pearl a dramatic moment to examine the motives, means and opportunity of all the suspects before solving the case, in a fashion reminiscent of Poirot wrapping things up on the Nile or the Orient Express.

Overall, this is a deeply satisfying novel that boldly positions itself in a classic crime fiction sub-genre, and which works all the better for it, giving it a unified concept and identity away from the hymnody in praise of Whitstable and its environs, a strong feature of the preceding books. Wassmer can’t quite resist celebrating her home-town, though (and why not); ‘one of the town’s greatest successes was its ability to adapt without sacrificing its inherently quirky nature,’ an observation which can also apply to Wassmer’s series of novels itself and which highlights what is proving to be one of its greatest strengths.

Murder on the Pilgrims Way is published by Constable / Little Brown Books.