Julianna Deering – Rules of Murder, Death by the Book, Murder at the Mikado, Dressed for Death, and Murder on the Moor
I recently tried out Rules of Murder, the first entry in Julianna Deering’s Drew Fathering series. Deering’s acknowledgements reveal her delight with and admiration of the oeuvres of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and Margery Allingham. Truth be told, her own novel, with minor glitches, pays them creditable tribute, highlighted with some unique twists of her own. Set in an early 1930s English countryside and estate, her novel possesses an enjoyable cast. Drew Fathering, the main character is a young aristocrat somewhat at loose ends with what to do with his life, though too intelligent, self-aware, and kind-hearted to be considered a n’er do well. He’s content to let his patient stepfather run the industry that keeps the family in fine brandy, sumptuous grounds, the latest fashions, and fancy roadsters. Fathering’s best pal, a kind of Watson/Scully/Horatio all rolled into one, is Nick Dennison, son of the butler but educated for upward mobility. Though Drew is the main sleuth, Nick is the maven of mystery conventions, offering semi-tongue-in-cheek guidance on detection from the checklist of Father Knox – as well as his own sound insights. The third main character is the romantic interest for Drew, Madeline Parker, a smart, warm, and mischievous American visitor – chic as Constance Bennett but sensible enough to strap on a pair of sturdy walking shoes when necessary. Though Drew is the novel’s lead, he clearly benefits from both the support and challenges of his comrades.
The plot is a lot to go into, especially without lapsing into spoilers. Let’s just say quintuple murders during the run of the novel’s action in England, industrial espionage, and a raft of people in disguise keep you guessing – and though you may dope out some of the plot twists, you won’t do so too soon. Plus, Deering sets you up nicely, so you find yourself saying, “Of course!”
The 1930s ambiance is perfect. The banter amongst characters is clever ( I actually chuckled out loud) and natural. There are even a few well-played slapstick scenes. The book also goes beyond Christie and Co. to recreate the feel of some of the more deft 1930s mystery/comedy films. Descriptions of clothing, cars, lifestyle, and the use of language nicely recreate the era, while topical allusions are natural: no “Oh, look! There’s FDR talking with Clark Gable about those newfangled talkies!”
Any drawbacks? A few minor caveats. At 323 pages, the first novel feels as if it could shave about 70 pages. This is from someone who reads Victorian novels for pleasure and work. Next, too many people spend a bit too much time weeping, tearing up, or needing to cry without being able to. Yes, murder is sad, but if your reader feels more equanimity is in order, then perhaps it is. In all fairness, it’s the men as well as the women who suffer from lachrymosity – no sexism there. Finally, the publisher emphasizes writing with a religious bent, a tendency of the novel that generally works. Still, there were a very few places where this aspect seemed to play out a tad too heavily for the average reader. However, given the spiritual culture of the setting (modern era of 1910-late1940s) and the social class focused on in the novel, the main character’s opening up to God and the female lead’s playfully nudging him along gives a believable depth to the characters and the unraveling of the mystery. So, though somewhat directed at an audience with Christian beliefs, the novel can be enjoyed by readers who do not follow any of the many Christian faiths.
On the whole, Rules of Murder is a solid first effort. After reading the rest of the installments in the series, I am happy to report that the glitches I mentioned above have been smoothed out. I also want to add that following the development of the characters’ relationships is a great pleasure. I’m especially pleased with the addition of Aunt Ruth to the mix.
By the bye, Julianna Deering explains that Nick Dennison’s guide to unraveling mysteries, Father Knox, was an actual person and his list an actual published list. Her impish goal was to write a successful mystery that would break as many of those rules as possible! Looks as if she pulled it off! Click here for her web site.
cover design by Jeff Miller Faceout Studio, Cover illustration copyright John Mattos