Tuesday, 13 September 2016

"A Proposal To Die For" Vivian Conroy

A Proposal to Die For (Lady Alkmene Callender Mysteries, #1)
Yes, guilty. It was the cover. All the way. I wanted to read this because of the gorgeous vintage stye cover - and its the only time I regret using a kindle and not being able to stroke (or frame!!) the front of the book while I'm reading it!

I also liked the title - a gentle pun which gives the sense of a playful mystery thriller, which is just what this book is!

With her father away in India, Lady Alkmene Callender finds being left to her own devices in London intolerably dull, until the glamorous Broadway star Evelyn Steinbeck arrives in town! Gossip abounds about the New York socialite, but when Ms Steinbeck’s wealthy uncle, Silas Norwhich, is found dead Lady Alkmene finds her interest is piqued. Because this death sounds a lot to her like murder…

This novel introduces us to Lady Alkmene, a sassy young woman who is a little ahead of her time. She's not a detective - she's bored and looking for something exciting to happen to her. This is the first in a set of three novels featuring Callender and this initial instalment neatly concentrates on setting up her character, revealing her interest in detective work and preparing the way for what promises to be a charming and delightful series.

Lady Alkmene has a nose for drama and is quick to add a sprinkle of suspicion to anything she observes from the outset. The very opening sentence shows her listening in to a mysteriously whispered conversation behind a curtain and kick starts the book into an intriguing situation regarding a marriage proposal from an anonymous voice. Although not trained in the world of detective work, or having had much exposure to crime, Alkmene is quick to learn, a keen observer with an appealing spirit and sense of adventure. Journalist Jake Dubois, who is reluctant to accept her help or involve her with solving the crime, eventually relents and together they embark on exposing deep secrets and dancing with danger.

The writing is very fluid, easy, gently humorous and satisfyingly amiable. Conroy slips in historical detail and character description with a few deft strokes of her pen, painting very visual pictures from well chosen adjectives and appropriate imagery. The era of the twenties makes the novel even more attractive and helps to cast a spell over the reader.

Alkmene is a likeable, cheerful protagonist. Conroy writing style effectively strikes a balance between the necessary ingredients for a classic crime mystery alongside a more wry, droll voice. For example, lines like the following draw a smile to the reader's face and mimic the affectionate tones with which people think of Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot.

"Unexpected death always had an unhealthy appeal to Alkmene, and she perused the few lines underneath with great interest."

"There was no place like the Waldeck tea room to catch some gossip about a sudden death."

And one of my favourite quotes:

"She wanted to say something meaningful and profound, but she had no idea how she could prevent it from sounding thought-up and untrue."

Unlike many recent contemporary crime novels - particularly those in the psychological thriller genre -  where there is always a sense of haste, speed and desperate pace, this story is more relaxed. The crime will be solved, there will be moments of high drama and tension, but not one that will set your pulse racing in that slightly unhinged manner. This is a take-a-breather-with-a-cup-of-tea book (or a sip of champagne perhaps?) and for that, I found it rather refreshing!

Alkmene and Dubois' relationship continues to flourish as their investigation proceeds, both keen to uncover the truth. I liked Conroy's description of their disappointment when things don't go as planned:

"But there was nothing....No documents either, no letters, no plans to some top secret invention or treaty that could throw all Europe into war..."

And the more time Alkmene and Dubois spend together, the more proficient she becomes in thinking like a detective which lays good ground work for the next instalment. As Alkmene later comments:

"Now she understood better why the police at times followed up on fake clues, pursing one angle, while not seeing other elements that were right under their noses. There were so many elements to a case, and the picture kept shifting like a kaleidoscope."

Conroy's voice is assured and she can clearly write. She seems to have struck gold here with a perfect mix of an enticing era, genial characters and a good, solid plot that is entertaining and satisfying. There have been some press articles recently about the return to "cosy crime" which makes the publication of this novel very timely.  This book is a cross between "Downton Abbey" and "Miss Marple". It is like a cross between "Mr Selfridge" and "Sherlock Holmes". Perfect for the long winter nights ahead where comfort becomes a key word in everyone's vocabulary.

And Conroy has plans for her two main characters. "A Proposal to Die For" ends with this conversation between them:

"'Spare me, I think I just want a better breakfast first and then we can decide what to do about getting back to civilisation.' Jake straightened up and passed her chair, laughing. 'At your service, my lady.'"

"A Proposal To Die For" publishes on 19th September 2016 and will be followed by "Diamonds of Death" and "Deadly Treasures". 

My thanks to NetGalley for an ARC of this novel in return for an honest review. 

If you have enjoyed this review then please follow me on Twitter for more recommendations and reviews at @katherinesunde3 (bibliomaniac) 

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