I found Murder in Steeple Martin listed under British mystery on Amazon. An innocuous title that promised a trip down memory lane. The story is set in a little English village, true, but there are many modern elements to it.
I have fondly read Agatha Christie for several years, many times over. I was overjoyed to meet M. C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin and Hamish Macbeth. But I have mixed feelings about Libby Sarjeant, with a ‘J’, the protagonist of our book. Steeple Martin is a small village somewhere in Kent with a place called Canterbury close by. The story opens on an amateur drama group who are working hard on rehearsing a play which will open soon in the new local theatre.
The story of the play is based on the family history of the scriptwriter Peter. And the theatre has been built by his cousin. We meet Libby Sarjeant, dowdy middle aged woman, who is directing the play. She has known Peter for several years. Peter and Harry are a gay couple who run a restaurant in the village, a vegetarian one, no less. Ben, Peter’s cousin built the theatre where an Oast house used to be. Ben’s mother Hetty was a hop picker who later married the estate owner’s son. Peter’s mother Millie was her infant sister. There was a mysterious death there years ago, and Peter has written a script about it.
Mysterious events indicate that someone is trying to sabotage the play. It is obvious that Millie, Peter’s mother is terrified about dredging up a painful past via the play. One of the actors is found murdered and the investigation begins. Libby and her crew are questioned many times, and they think one of them is a suspect. Meanwhile, the play opens to a packed audience. Who has something to lose from a past mystery? Enough to kill an innocent girl? Ben brings a friend Fran with special abilities to aid in the investigation.
The story of Murder in Steeple Martin is really good. There are a lot of characters, and it takes a while to sort all of them out and establish the relations between them. There are two parallel mysteries or stories in a way – what happened almost fifty years ago, and what is happening now. It takes a long time, almost 60% in the book to know that Libby is in her 50s. But she still believes that not one but two men are interested in her. She is not a glamouros person by any account, and seems to survive on copious amounts of whiskey and tea.
There is a lot of slang in the book, which is hard to understand, and may turn some readers off. A lot of ‘ducks’ and ‘love’ and ‘you old trout’ and ‘am dram’. Actually, I still don’t know what am-dram is. The character of Fran seems to be unnecessary. She doesn’t really add to the story, and I hope she is not a recurring character.
The book seems to be set in a modern era, post millennium or just before it. I almost gave up the book a few times, but the story had enough of a hold on me to keep me reading on. Murder in Steeple Martin is like a gem wrapped in brown paper. You will have to be patient until you peel off the brown paper.