At our writing group, the Lichfield Writers, one of our members mentioned how much she enjoyed M.C.Beaton’s books. As we were going out of the library where we meet, I noticed the latest Beaton, Dead Ringer, on the Rapid Reads shelf (books which have just come in and you must get through them in a week because other people want to get hold of them). So I picked it up, and…
I have to say that I am less than impressed. Now, this is the latest in the series, and there are 28 (!!) titles in the series before this one. So I’m coming in at the end of the conversation, and much of what I read will be familiar territory to fans of the series, and there may be a lot of backstory that Benton doesn’t feel she needs to put into the 29th book.
Even so, I felt this was a book produced in a hurry. The cover shows a church which hardly corresponds to the Norman church of Thirk Magna in the book, and the bells look like a stock illustration cut from a wedding programme clipart set. Incidentally, the American edition, entitled The Dead Ringer, shows an even more ludicrously inappropriate church on the cover.
That’s not the author’s fault, really, but she should have spotted the typo on the first page which the proofreader (I don’t think there was an editor involved) missed.
Both had lon, thin faces and long, thin noses. [sic]
Happily, there were no other obvious typos, other than some dubious capitalisation and lack of same, but I am sure some characters got misnamed in the course of the story. Beaton seems to enjoy introducing a cast of thousands but many of them float in and out of the story without being much more than cardboard cutouts (lovely mixed metaphor there – you may use it without attribution if you wish).
As a result, I found myself having to flick back and forth through the pages to put faces to names. One or two characters stood out, as they were meant to, but the “detective” (and I use the title very advisedly) Agatha Raisin, came over as a psychological mess who was incapable of running her own life, let alone solving mysteries in other people’s lives. The love/sex interests failed to convince me (but then other people’s emotional lives are a mystery, almost by definition), and the other characters… even more wooden than Agatha Christie’s supporting casts.
And then there is the gross carelessness. The villain of the piece, for motives which are explained, but badly, is the local bishop, apparently a hunk of gorgeous masculine sexuality (though that doesn’t come over well, to my mind) and completely amoral (somewhat of a cardboard villain, though). He is aided and abetted by “his” dean (another 2D thuggish character). Now this betrays a complete ignorance of the Church of England hierarchy. A dean is the head of the cathedral church in a diocese and has no diocesan responsibilities. The office that Beaton meant to use here was that of archdeacon, who effectively acts as a bishop’s executive officer in the diocese. It took me two minutes to confirm this on Wikipedia. Shame on Beaton for not doing this, and shame on Constable (Hachette) for not employing an editor who could spot this and correct it. She also seems unaware of some of the details of clerical dress and vestments (again, Wikipedia can be your friend here).
How about this one (it’s glorious):
…a magnificent Victorian pulpit carved by Grinling Gibbons.
That would be really valuable, since it really raises my opinion of Grinling Gibbons, who died in 1721, nearly 100 years before Victoria was born, let alone reigned. Really clever work there, Mr Gibbons to produce posthumous wood carvings. It took me less than a minute to fact-check that one. Shame on whoever wrote that, and shame on whoever let that go through.
Oh, and a character is shot in the stomach in one chapter and turns up whole and hearty in the next. I lost count of the number of times characters punched each other on the nose. Five? Six?
Motives for the crimes? Unconvincing. Methods? A little less so, perhaps. The plot, such as it was, meandered aimlessly and I felt no desire to know who committed the crimes, or why, or how. I only finished the book so that I could say I had read it before writing this review.
Style? Forgettable – it’s better than Dan Brown, but only just. Need I say more?
If there is a moral to this story, it is that even established names in the writing world need to have a firm editorial hand applied when they write pot-boilers to pay the gas bills.
OK, so I’ve been hard on a writer who is famous and has had TV series made of her books. Have I caught her on an off day, did Beaton actually write this, or was it put together by some hack ghost, am I too picky and finicky, or do I have a point here?