Wednesday, 29 April 2009

“Death of a Pilgrim”, David Dickinson

Last year David Dickinson was an author I very enthusiastically indulged in, loving their wit, endearing pictures of Edwardian society, gentle nods towards art, and ultimately, at the heart, a good traditional murder to get to the bottom of. More recently however coming across a new Lord Francis Powerscourt mystery is something of a curates egg. There's still the out and out glee at spotting a new one on the shelf, and no question at all in my mind that it's immediately placed on the to be read pile (and somewhere near the top too), but sadly "Death of a Pilgrim" continues the pattern I started to discern with "Death on Holy Mountain". The pace seems to have noticably slowed, and where once they'd cheerfully be disposed of in a day or so, they now don't impose themselves at the forefront of consciousness quite enough, so much so that "Death of a Pilgrim" has occasionally been left on the bedside table and not quite made it into the briefcase.

"Death of a Pilgrim" has been described elsewhere as a traditional English country house murder mystery recast along the path of a group of pilgrims making their way to Santiago de Compostela. This is a clever narrative device, but slightly unsettling, as throughout the book there's a niggle in the back of your mind as to what works of classic detective fiction Dickinson is paying homage to and while this is not a demanding read, there are times when it is rewarding to be paying attention to what's on the page rather than mulling over other books.

In setting the mystery along the Way of St James Dickinson is given the opportunity to stretch his literary legs in - his descriptions of the wide open vistas of l'Aubrac, the warm shady twists of the Lot, and the crumbling remains of castles from the Albigensian crusade. As such, in places it's beautifully written and immersive, although one can't help thinking that coming after the previous Powerscourt books it's as though David Dickinson is having a go at metamorphosing into Brian Sewell.

So - cultural fusion aside, is it any good? The answer here has to be a partial endorsement. The central plot, that of multiple members of the extended Delaney family all gathered on a pilgrimage from Le Puy to Santiago is engaging enough, but gives rise to a certain level of confusion, multiple characters all with more or less the same name rely heavily on having distinct personalities, and while there are some attempts at granting them distinguising features (the corpulent priest, the drunkard, the lovestruck) this isn't quite enough to raise them much above the level of cardboard cutout characters. This, in addition to adding a layer of confusion to the book, means it is noticably harder to care particularly about many of the characters, whcih sadly reduces murder to something of a ho-hum affair. In some ways the identity of the perpetrator is predictable, although this is so much so that there is enjoyment in trying to build cases for other candidates, and given the peripatetic location, and the shared background of the pilgrims, there is a more than a passing resemblance to "Murder on the Orient Express".

The series is often seen as being about Lord Francis Powerscourt, but one insight I took away from "Death of a Pilgrim" was the centrality of Johnny Fitzgerald. The two spark off each other effectively, and while many of the elements featuring Fitzgerald, including a stay in Macroom and an encounter with his former fiancee feel like underdeveloped subplots, the quality and sheer fun of Fitzgerald's character really shine through, and when his path finally joins that of Powerscourt there is a palpable lift to the enjoyability of the book.

Despite this being one of the longer books in the series one can't help but wonder whether Dickinson had to leave some additional plot richness on the cutting room floor. The scenes in Ireland feel as though there should be more to them, opportunities to muddy the waters regarding the perpetrator feel as though they should have been taken, and ultimately there wasn't the overarching sense of satisfaction at the end as has been found in some of the preceeding volumes.

Finally, a niggle, nothing to do with Dickinson. Towards the end Powerscourt speculates about the Three Musketeers, and who in the investigating group could readily be identified with which musketeer. This immediately brought to mind a book I've read in the last 12 months, where children (I think( learning who the three musketeers were constituted a recurrent theme. The character I'm thinking of could readily recall D'Artagnen (like everyone else) but not the other two. Since finishing the book last night I've been wracking my brains as to what book I'm thinking of and can't for the life of me get to the bottom of it. Scrolling through previous reads on LibraryThing haven't helped, and it's the sort of question Google is hopeless at answering. If anyone can think of what it might be I'm thinking of - and I'm pretty sure it's crime fiction of some variety - answers on a metaphorical postcard please - it's annoying me sufficiently I can probably drum up a small prize for anyone who can put me out of my misery...

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