Crime series are nothing new, but they have become so prevalent, it has become necessary for publishers to point out when a new novel by a favourite author is actually a standalone.
It gets tricky, though, when you're looking for a new author and come upon a title that sounds interesting only to find that you've been plunked down into the middle of a larger narrative, one that involves personalities that have developed over time, and into families that have histories.
It's a mark of a good author that you can pick up the thread at any stage and get caught up in the action.
Barron manages this, because she can make use of our familiarity with Jane Austen's voice and of the few bits and pieces that we know of the author's life. The author does an excellent job of reproducing the rhythms and the wryness of Austen's voice, and also crafts a good mystery, one that manages to elegantly marry the context of the era with the variety of personalities in play.
Jane, her mother, and her sister set out to spend Christmas with her brother and his family. Their straitened circumstances mean that the holiday will be spent with many economies made, but they are invited to a Big House for the bulk of the celebrations.
This would have been perfect, had not one of their number been found dead in mysterious circumstances. With the help of Mr Raphael West, Jane embarks on the solving of the mystery, which involves the politics of the time, as well as issues of class.
There's just enough yearning for Jane to fall in love with West to make this a romance, and just enough mystery to make it intriguing. Things wrap up perhaps too quickly, but it was thoroughly enjoyable, and the Christmas setting was perfect for the imminent time of year.
Inspired by my enjoyment of this, I went back and picked up another, earlier instalment of the series and wasn't as pleased. Barron has gotten better at what she does - which isn't always the case...
FESTIVE IN DEATH
By JD Robb Piatkus (2014), €20.85 HHHII
Such is the case here: I've read Robb's In Death from the start and will read them until the last, even if they have become predictable and less than gripping. I've gotten invested in the characters, but wouldn't recommend a first-time reader to start here.
This is number 39 in the series and is set at Christmas; Lieutenant Eve Dallas is on a case, in which a loathsome Lothario of a personal trainer was murdered. The case is not very interesting, and seems to have been written by rote; the draw is her marriage to the wealthy and handsome Roarke, and the friends that they have around them.
Had the entire novel been set and taken place at their fabulous and lavish Christmas party - well, that would have been fine by me.
THE SOUL OF DISCRETION
By Susan Hill Chatto & Windus, €21.50 HHIII
Chief Inspector Simon Serailler is 6" 2' tall. This is important to his author, because she mentions that fact an inordinate number of times. Also, if you are a fan of the series, set in Lafferton, a fictional town in the south of England, then you surely already know this.
Is it a metaphor for the largeness of his presence? If it is, then something is going wrong with the writing: there's a lot of showing and not telling going on here.
The book starts with what amount to three prologues, all related to instances of child abuse. Then, the story proper starts… and recounts these events all over again, in the guise of Simon being prepped for a covert op.
The assignment is no joke, as he is to go undercover into a prison facility that caters to rehabilitating sexual offenders. He has to take on the persona of Johnno Miles and deeply inhabit and portray the history of a paedophile.
It's an extraordinary premise, one that Hill inexplicably doesn't really delve into. There are several other story-lines that accompany the main event, having to do with Simon's family and his romantic relationship. It's not that these are uncommon elements in a crime novel - and in fact, more context for the main character is always welcome - but here, none of them weave into the flow of the narrative. We go from scene to scene, from a rape, to a huge digression about death and dying, and they don't really link very closely to the main action.
Hill squanders the essence of the narrative, which was really a clever and terrifying idea. We don't see Simon really become Johnno; we don't spend very much time in the prison; we don't see Simon struggle with 'being' a predator. He doesn't pay for his subterfuge emotionally but physically, despite all that height; whilst the fall out from that resolution ties all the story-lines together, it still seems like a cop out.
THE FIFTH SEASON
By Mons Kallentoft Hodder & Stoughton (2014), €11.50 HHHII
Wow, I don't know if it's a good thing or a bad thing to be a Scandinavian author with an interest in the crime genre. On the one hand, they are still the flavour-of-the-month, as it were; on the other, readers have to be rolling their eyes as yet another Scandi novelist lands in their bookshops. I'm not sorry I read this, and it has a lot going for it, but I'm not sure that I'd seek out the previous four titles.
Malin Fors is a detective and she is also a recovering alcoholic. There is a cold case that's been haunting her for years, to do with a woman found naked in the woods, who has clearly been raped, and who has refused to say a word since she was found seven years previously.
When two more similar cases present themselves, Fors is once again thrown into the silent world of the victims, to find them justice.
Kallentoft's voice is terse. I found it difficult to get into, but once there, Kallentoft created a sense of anxiety that was striking, to say the least.
However, once put aside and then picked up again, it took work getting back into it all over again. If you like taut, slightly overwhelming narrative, you may like to have a look at this.