J.G. Walker: Book Review – Dream of the Dead by M.G. Scarsbrook

19135062There are a number of accepted rules mystery writers are expected to follow, all of which are meant to ensure fair play with readers. The reader wants to have had a decent chance at solving the mystery, so the author has to plant clues—including both reliable hints and red herrings—and develop characters to the point where they can be properly evaluated as suspects. Motives should be realistic and fairly simple, and methods of murder should be somewhat plausible. 

As far as I know, though, there’s no rule requiring an author to give the detective a cool name. This is what M.G. Scarsbrook has done with sleuth Detective Inspector Jack Ravenshaw, the main character in Dream of the Dead, so there’s definitely that. But Scarsbrook’s novel is much more than a whodunit with a detective fortunate enough to have a snappy name. It’s an utterly engaging mystery.

The story begins with Ravenshaw helping a woman who appears intent on taking her own life. He’s on his way in to work when he sees her threatening to throw herself from a bridge, so, against his better sense, he climbs up and talks her into coming down. As with most good mysteries, this tense introductory episode turns out to be more important than we might have assumed. More on this in a moment.

Here’s the setup: The source of the mystery, a death, takes place in London’s West End, the theatre district. Charlie Maitland, a popular, talented, and controversial producer, dies of poisoning, an apparent suicide. At the time of Maitland’s death, there are only three other people in the house with him: his wife, her personal assistant, and the housekeeper. This housekeeper, it so happens, is the same woman Ravenshaw helped earlier on the bridge, and she’s terrified. Of something.

Though the case has been closed, Maitland’s parents have asked that it be re-opened, convinced their son could not have taken his own life. Enter Ravenshaw, who’s been assigned to join the investigation with a new partner, Detective Sergeant Emily Hart. As the story progresses, timelines are scrutinized, motives are examined, and secrets are revealed. But even as Ravenshaw starts to try and get his sleuthing feet under him, he realizes he’s not wanted on the case. The former lead detective and Maitland’s stepfather seem to be against him, and Ravenshaw even suspects his new partner may be spying on him.

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Scarsbrook’s detectives complement each other well: Hart is more of follow-the-regs type of cop while Ravenshaw prefers more unconventional means of getting things done. But don’t assume this is as simple as “she plays by the book–he doesn’t play by anyone’s rules” setup. Ravenshaw utilizes some decidedly unique methods to assimilate and analyze clues, and Hart, while certainly falling on the more cautious end of the police work continuum, serves as much more than just a convenient foil for Ravenshaw.  

Speaking of character, it’s all well and good to read about crime solving, but most mystery readers (remember them?) also want to engage with their detectives. We don’t have to like them, but we should feel a need to know what happens to them. Why do they do what they do? What drives them? What frightens them? This may sound like an easily accomplished goal for an author, but it’s actually difficult to pull it off. Too much personal insight into a character can take away from the all-important game of solving the mystery, while too little can seem like a token effort.

Unfortunately, mystery writers sometimes give in to the temptation to make their detectives interesting by blessing them with any number of clichéd characteristics: excessive drinking, promiscuity, mental instability, a pronounced disrespect for authority. While these can be interesting traits, they’ve been done so many times that it’s difficult to make them new and intriguing.

Never fear. Jack Ravenshaw is interesting, but he’s nowhere close to being a cliché. He has a past, some of it troubled, but it isn’t formed out of detective novel standbys. His father was one of the greatest stage actors of his generation, and his mother, an award-winning actress, is the artistic director at The Curtain, a theatre his family once owned but that was sold after his father’s death. This is one of the given reasons for Ravenshaw’s being attached to this case, in fact, his extensive theatrical background, a life he’s left behind. Now, however, The Curtain is in peril, so now Ravenshaw, in addition to solving Charlie Maitland’s murder, needs to figure out a way to help his mother. Complications ensue, lots of them.

Ultimately, Dream of the Dead is a solid, sophisticated, well-written mystery, and Scarsbrook has done a fine job of creating a seemingly unsolvable puzzle along with a detective who’s up to the task of solving it. The story hits all the necessary mystery novel notes while covering new, interesting, and sometimes even surprising ground.  

Oh, and it’s also worth calling attention to the novel’s subtitle, West End Murders Book 1. Presumably, this means we can look forward to more Jack Ravenshaw adventures. Sign me up.

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