1920s, 1925, Amy Myers, book review, chef, England, evoking an era, feminism, great houses, Great War, historical fiction, murder, mystery, plot, Scotland Yard, Socialism
Review: Dancing with Death, by Amy Myers
Severn, 2017. 215 pp. $29
It’s hard to dislike a novel that begins, “‘Galloping codfish, Kitty! What the dickens do you call that?’” This exclamation comes from Nell Drury, the chef–do not call her cook–at Wychbourne Court, ancestral home of the eighth Marquess Ansley and his somewhat quarrelsome family. It’s 1925, enough time after the Great War for the love of merriment to have retaken hold, though no one has forgotten the suffering and sacrifice. Nell, a former student of the great Escoffier at the Ritz-Carlton, if you please, has much on her plate. Most immediately she’s responsible for the hors d’oeuvres and two full meals at the soirée her employers are giving.
However, the festivities also include a chummy get-together with the ghosts said to inhabit Wychbourne, and since the place goes back centuries, there are quite a few. Actually, only one person believes that there are ghosts, but she happens to be Lord Ansley’s sister,the sort of dotty eccentric that no English manse can be without, especially in fiction. Lady Clarice has many more instructions for Chef Nell, because, you know, ghosts must eat too, or, at the very least, they derive pleasure from smelling and seeing their favorite foods. As a dutiful, loyal servant, Nell keeps her opinions of this to herself; all she knows is that the evening will be complicated.
How right she is. If you’ve ever read or seen a movie in the country-house mystery genre, you need no ouija board to know that someone will die during the ghost-klatsch; that this murder will have multiple suspects; and that Nell will take it upon herself to investigate, sometimes running afoul of the police, who somehow think that solving crime is their job. But if Myers’s bow to conventions is altogether predictable, how she handles them makes all the difference.
Dancing with Death is strongest in its plot, at which Myers excels. Without introducing hidden facts that the reader couldn’t possibly have guessed–a ploy we’ve all come across, despite its lack of generosity–Myers leaves more or less everything open to view. You know the enmities, alliances, and romances running through the household; you just don’t know who’s lying to protect whom until people revise their stories. Consequently, Nell never sees more than the reader does, and since she has to balance what to tell the Scotland Yard inspector against her loyalty to Wychbourne, she’s protecting people as well, which adds another layer of tension.
The occasional wit helps. As Nell observes while visiting an aristocratic neighbor who wishes to hire her for a party:
It was a stone-built residence looking bleakly ornate compared with Wychbourne Court. I’m here for you to witness how grand I am, it seemed to be saying to her. The large reception room where she was asked to wait did nothing to contradict this assessment. Gentlemen in military uniform glared down from every wall and their long-suffering wives smiled weakly at the painters. Nell wondered whether they ever got together with the Wychbourne Court ghosts.
I wish, though, that Dancing with Death had more wit beyond Nell’s mild oaths; “blithering beets,” and the like, clever once, get tiresome after a while. And though Myers keeps the narrative percolating, she pays little attention to character. Nell’s a capable diplomat, independent, and conscious of herself as a pioneer, a woman in a field dominated by men. That’s interesting, but Myers does little with it other than to mention it, repeatedly. Very little of her past (or anyone’s) appears, and her reflections are the trite type common to the genre: “Could X be lying? That could be dangerous. Then again, Nell owed it to the Ansleys.” You get the picture.
There’s also little to define the era as the 1920s other than a few songs, dances, styles of dress, and social attitudes. The war has left its mark, we’re told, but people don’t seem to walk around with it. One Ansley daughter dabbles in socialism, and her enlightened views about class do her credit, but I’m not buying her theory that her parents don’t really care about that stuff anymore. Even to think so, without any discussion, conflict, or evidence, seems like a retrospective view of that time rather than those years from the inside.
Should historical mysteries offer a deeper perspective? I think they should; certainly, the best do. One that comes to mind, of about the same length, is Chris Nickson’s Gods of Gold. Obviously, not every writer has to be like every other, and Dancing with Death has its charms. But I know which approach I prefer.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.