As a Golden Age of Detection fanatic, me reviewing a modern crime novel is a bit like a velociraptor reviewing an iPhone. But Elly Griffiths’ The Postscript Murders has a stronger than usual connection to the Golden Age.
The story starts with the death of Peggy Smith, ninety-year-old resident of the Seaview Apartments in Shoreham on Sea. Her carer, Natalka, thinks she was murdered, and through force of personality manages to convince DS Harbinder Kaur, Peggy’s neighbour Edwin, and the owner of a local cafe, Benjamin, to investigate Peggy’s death. It transpires that Peggy was a “Murder Consultant” for the successful local author Dex Challoner, and seemingly other authors even stretching back to the Golden Age. But soon after the group discovers this, there’s another death – and this one’s definitely murder.
The plot revolves around authors and readers of crime fiction, of all kinds, and crosses paths with many aspects of publishing. There are some particularly good scenes featuring author events, from the slick but friendly to the believably and hilariously horrendous. And there’s also plenty of time for discussing crime fiction past and present. Not that the book is overwhelmed by this; far from it. In fact, the focus is on the four central characters. I warmed to them very quickly. Griffiths is great at smoothly working in aspects of their backstory into what they do and think (which makes it odd that she gives a clunky backstory dump for each of them on their introduction). The energetic Natalka provides the driving force of the investigation, Benjamin the ex-monk has the clearest character arc as well as being the keenest reader, and Edwin’s friendship with Peggy and reflections on old age are something of an emotional centre. Harbinder, through much of the book, remains separate from the amateurs and has her own sub-plots and parallel investigations. Her home life, with worries about coming out to her parents, and professional life, where she often feels on the defensive about her race, both felt necessary and natural parts of a whole character while not swamping out the plot.
To be honest – it just feels good to read about good-but-complicated people making connections and getting on with their lives. The characters all reach distinct and satisfying (for the reader, not necessarily the character…) conclusions.
Unfortunately, all of this character focus (it must have been hard work keeping track of all four viewpoints) has some downsides. I don’t expect Golden Age style clues and logic in a modern mystery, but I was still disappointed here. As I reached the end of the book and the explanations were delivered, I actually became more confused and not less. While the character arcs showed clear development throughout the book, there were no investigative arcs of any kind – every mystery was left until the end, so there was no sense of progress. The motives were weak and were figured out through guesswork. The “proof” is too easily achieved in one case and flimsily circumstantial in the other. I’m not actually that fussy about solving it myself – but I have to at least believe the characters could have solved it. All the effort the sleuths went to over the course of the book didn’t bear any relation to how they eventually guessed the killer.
For me, the hard work put into portraying the locations, into the characters you would like to hang out with, into the well-observed moments of reality, is soured by a plot which undermines the believability of all of it. If characters rather than plot are always your reason for reading mystery fiction, then this may be for you. But though I had a fun time with the parts before the explanations, the plot of a mystery novel is too important to me for me to recommend something where it seems to be an afterthought.