Wednesday, September 5, 2012

M is for A MURDER OR THREE by Laurie Mantell

Once again, in 2012, thanks to the fabulous Kerrie of Mysteries in Paradise, crime fiction afficianados around the world are sharing posts about a variety of crime fiction authors, books, themes, and more - in an alphabetical sort ot way.

The 2012 edition of the Crime Fiction Alphabet (CFA) kicked off back in May (yes, this year, unlike previous incarnations, I've badly slipped behind so far, only doing the "C", "E", "F", and "O" posts), and this week we are up to the letter P'.

As I don't like leaving things incomplete, I've decided to go back and revisit some of the letters I've missed so far, in addition to posting about the remaining letters P-Z over the next few weeks. Hope everyone doesn't mind.

So for today, I'm returning to the letter "M", but featuring some 'forgotten fiction' by New Zealand mystery writer Laurie Mantell (who passed away a couple of years ago), A MURDER OR THREE. 

From 1978-1984, Mantell wrote five Wellington-set murder mysteries featuring Detective Sergeant Steve Arrow of the NZ Police. She also wrote a sixth crime novel, the standalone MATES, in the late 1990s. I understand that, particularly her first five books, were actually reasonably well-received and popular, being read and published in several countries. Mantell is referenced, along with Dame Ngaio Marsh, under the "New Zealand crime fiction" section of at least one US reference text I've seen (the only two NZ authors). 

In A MURDER OR THREE, three women are murdered, each with a pair of pantyhose. Detective Sergeant Steve Arrow of the Wellington Police knows the first victim, a shy teenager he met as part of an investigation into a flasher seen in nearby bush. 

The body of the second victim, older, extremely attractive, is found in this same bush, and, later, a flirtatious wife dies in her own home with the tell-tale pantyhose around her throat. Residents are in near panic, and Arrow and his colleagues have little to go on as they try to investigate the murder of three women who seemed to have little in common. Could a serial killer, some kind of sex maniac, be loose in 1980s suburban Wellington?

A MURDER OR THREE definitely reads as a book of 'another era', so to speak - but it is well-written, and very enjoyable nonetheless. I would imagine that Mantell may have been a fan of the classic Golden Era 'puzzle' detective fiction of the likes of Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh, as A MURDER OR THREE shows many of the hallmarks of the, rather bloodless and sex-free, 'cosy' style. But this 'traditional' storytelling of course still remains a style that has many, many fans - as evidenced by the popularity of Malice Domestic and the annual Agatha Awards etc.

In a way, A MURDER OR THREE would probably most appeal to those who love such 'traditional' detective stories, with interesting characters and puzzle-type whodunnit plots (rather than some of the modern procedural or whydunnit styles) - but brought forward from the war and post-war years of Poirot and Alleyn into the 1970s-1980s - a Midsomers Murders or Inspector Morse type of feel and style perhaps. Not a confined mystery of the country house sense, but still 'old school', in a good way.

Mantell writes well, setting up a good plot, with plenty of red herrings and suspicion to be cast about and keep the reader guessing right until the end. Arrow is an engaging lead character, although the reader doesn't get as much background or personal life (overload) with him as you would with some present-day detectives. Mantell brings 1970s/1980s Wellington and New Zealand to life, especially in terms of the way she evokes suburban life, and the way in which even New Zealand's biggest cities were pretty relaxed in pace at the time.

Overall I really enjoyed A MURDER OR THREE. It was a bit of a nostalgic trip down memory lane, in terms of the style of writing and the era of the story - but in a good way, because Mantell writes well. If you primarily enjoy the darker end of crime, with plenty of blood and gory serial killers, you might find A MURDER OR THREE a little slow or tame for your liking. But anyone who likes cosy or traditional mysteries, whether by preference or as an occasional diversion, will find themselves very glad if they get their hands on a copy of this book.

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