Monday, 7 June 2010

The Flower Arranger at All Saints by Lis Howell

Surprisingly enough, considering how much I personally dislike most organized Religion, I really like clerical mysteries. This might be because their depiction of Christian communities is more realistic than the image most such communities would like to have themselves portrayed. They take out the holier than thou element and put it aside by letting us see into the minds of all the parishioners and show both their hidden evils and their hidden kindnesses (because let’s face it, there are few who are purely evil and have no kindness in them). It might also be because they are usually fairly cosy mysteries. Then again, it might be because they bring back an element that used to be so important to the community. As much as I dislike organized Religion as a whole, I can see the importance the church has had for society both in a social and a religious sense and do believe that it’s a shame that it’s disappearing. Now, before earn myself a bunch of hate mail from either or both camps, I think I’ll move along to the book.

Phyllis is found dead in All Saints. It’s assumed she’s had a heart attack while arranging the flowers for the next service, but Susie Spencer notices her injuries couldn’t have been an accident. With no other evidence to go on, she takes the matter no further, but it niggles at her and her new friend Robert. Then, when someone else dies, they know it can no longer be ignored and the both set out whodunit.

I know this is a pretty poor synopsis, but it’s difficult to say anything about the book without giving some of the plot away. As with her second book, The Chorister at the Abbey, much of the book centres on the characters, their connections with each other and how they think and function. As I said in my review of The Chorister:

Although this is literally a mystery and is rightly sold as such, Howell does an ingenious job at integrating the lives of her characters into the novel. There are times when it feels more like an inspection into the lives of those surrounding the murder rather then a mystery which in no way detracts from the book. The forays into each character’s life are engaging and interesting, especially as Howell is so good at allowing to reader to identify with the characters and their choices.

I don’t want to imply that the books are the same, because they aren’t. Indeed, The Flower Arranger has a much more malevolent feel to it. The characters are more self-centred and much less Christian in their behaviour. What I like about these books is that Howell gives you access to their thoughts, and although you’d think it would be easier to divine whodunit, it actually muddies the waters. Instead of not having any information, you have so much that it’s easy to loose site of what’s important to the murders, which adds interesting elements to the book. Most crime/mystery is based on too little information, so having too much gives the book freshness.

4 out of 5 for this one. I hope to see more of Howell.

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