Reviewed by Craig Sisterson
During a radio broadcast Lance Temple suddenly shocked his listeners by saying he was dying and that it was murder. Sure enough, Temple was found slumped over the controls with a knife in his back. When it becomes obvious the staff at Broadcasting House were all lying about their movements, amateur sleuth The Reverend Jabal Jarrett, vicar of the parish of St. Bernard's, Auckland, helps in the investigation.
Schoolteacher and postie (a term we use in New Zealand for the person who delivers the mail) Freda Whale wrote non-fiction books about both her careers, but for mystery fans her legacy lives on in a series she wrote as a retiree in a rest home, centred on amateur sleuth and Auckland clergyman The Reverend Jabal Jarrett. In the last decade and a half before her death (the 1980s-1990s), she wrote 13 mysteries in her series, under the pen name Freda Bream.
Murder at the Microphone is the penultimate book in the Jabal Jarrett series, and by now the amiable reverend has quite the reputation for finding the truth in tricky cases. This time he finds himself tangled up in a murder investigation due to his radio duties - he's scheduled to record a spot for the 'Faith for Today' slot at Broadcasting House, and while he's there Lance Temple is reading the regional news round-up only to announce some breaking news: his very own murder.
When Chief Inspector Trevor Chambers arrives on the scene and finds out Jarrett was in the building at the time someone stuck a knife in Temple's back, live on air, he quickly summons the priest. Not for last rites, but because Jarrett "is one of the shrewdest men I know when it comes to identifying the person responsible for murder". And so starts a dual investigation over the coming days, with the police trying to piece together what led to Temple being stabbed, and Jarrett nosing around.
This is the first of Bream's mystery novels I have read, and I found it to be a very pleasant and enjoyable read. It is cosy in nature, with a bit of a sense of humour and 'lightness' to it that reminds me a lot of watching an episode of Murder She Wrote. The Reverend Jarrett is an unassuming man who seems comfortable in his own skin, who has a sharp eye and mind to go with a nose for people that has led to him playing amateur sleuth on several occasions. In his role as a priest he has a knack for listening to people's problems, and getting them to feel comfortable and open up to him.
It's easy to see how he could be an engaging series character, the kind of old-fashioned one that may not change much throughout a number of books, but is like an old friend you enjoy catching up with.
Bream writes in a straightforward manner, constructing a classically styled mystery plot that has plenty of suspects among a contained group (those in the radio station building at the time), an interesting location or 'world' for the murder (radio broadcasting), and a series of suspicions, red herrings, and motives that come out as the police and Jarrett find out more about all the staff. The mystery largely unfolds through a number of conversations and deductions by Jarrett rather than a whole lot of action - again a classic puzzle style in terms of pacing and plot structure.
There is nothing particularly innovative or stand-out about Murder at the Microphone, but I found it to be a diverting and pretty pleasant read. It flowed well, had some nice touches of light humour, and overall was just a nice wee read, not trying to be more than it was. I think fans of cosy mysteries, especially those who like tales set in the 1980s and 1990s (ie more modern than Golden Age, but not current-day with cellphones and internet and other technological aspects) would enjoy this series.
One for fans of Murder, She Wrote and Midsomer Murders and the like.
Craig Sisterson is a journalist from New Zealand who writes for magazines and newspapers in several countries. He has interviewed more than 140 crime writers, discussed crime fiction at literary festivals and on radio, and is the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel. Follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson