I’ve always been the kind of reader who enjoys a good detective novel, with the likes of Sherlock Holmes and Poirot providing endless hours of classic mystery and intrigue. When I was offered the chance to read the latest book in Catriona McPherson’s detective series, Dandy Gilver & A Spot of Toil and Trouble, I was definitely intrigued. This is the twelfth book in the Dandy Gilver series, and as I had never heard of them before this, I was more than curious as to what I may have been missing out on.
For those of you, like me, who may not know, this series follows the eponymous female detective Dandy Gilver, taking place in the historical period of the 1920’s onwards. McPherson’s latest novel finds Dandy in 1930’s Scotland, hired to solve the mystery of ‘a missing man, a lost ruby and a family curse’. Focusing upon Castle Brewer and its inhabitants, Dandy must delve into this family’s past, shifting through the webs of deceit and fiction to find the reality which lies beneath. However, with the family close to financial ruin, the castle is turned into a makeshift theatre; a performance of Shakespeare’s Macbeth designed to fill the castle’s walls with rich American’s. With such theatrics onstage, is it any wonder Dandy finds herself edging closer to the darkness of family secrets in reality?
The novel actually starts with a very short prologue, which I think does its job very well. It gives the novel a somewhat thrilling opening, hinting at the suspense and crime which is soon to come. It’s definitely something to be mindful of returning to when you have finished the book. From this, we move straight to Dandy in her family home, with her husband and son. I thought this was a really interesting way to start the novel, as it appears to place Dandy firmly within the female domestic sphere. Yet, very quickly Dandy’s working life is mentioned; a detective role which is traditionally very much associated with male figures. Immediately we have these sharp contrasts between the different aspects of Dandy’s life, creating tension for the rest of the novel.
I feel that Dandy herself would be an interesting character to write. She is part of the wealthier social circles, and as such she speaks with a very pronounced and well spoken manner. I felt that the author was able to maintain this throughout, capturing the tone of her female detective quite well. Placing Dandy in context to her position in the social hierarchy also adds to the tension which already exists in relation to her gender and detective work. In one particular scene, when Dandy tells an elderly woman of her profession, she is met with the exclamatory, ‘Here’s me thought you were a lady!’ (p. 88) This is just another example of how Dandy as a character is seen to be subverting the ideologies of a patriarchal society, and is something I would love to read more of.
Indeed, the idea of wealth and social position is a theme which is extremely prevalent throughout the entirety of the novel, and is very much connected to the central mystery of the plot. Although not as bad as in former times, there is still very much an upstairs/downstairs mentality within the household, with firm lines drawn between those who work in service, and those who employ them. I thought this was done well, as was the small other nods to the contexts of the time. I especially enjoyed the ways in which our narrator mentions the high rise, or as she calls it ‘epidemic’ in divorce cases. This time period has come a long way from the rigid Victorian laws which would only grant a divorce to men, yet it is undoubtedly still something which is reaching its heights. It was the little moments like this which placed the book in its time period which I thoroughly enjoyed.
Having said this, one of the things which I did find myself struggling with was forming a firm connection to the characters. I do not think they are poorly executed, as you can see from my feelings upon Dandy, but nevertheless I did not find myself able to fully connect to them. In many ways I felt that some of the characters were quite basic in their construction and very typical of their character type without necessarily having this backed up in the novel. Part of me does wonder if this is because this is the latest in the series, and as such many of the foundations for the novel may have already been established, resulting in myself missing out on a greater investment in the characters. On the other hand, it could well be to do with the fast paced nature of the plot, which perhaps means the book is not as character driven as a much slower book with a narrower scope might be.
To follow on from this, the plot itself is very driven by actions, with a clear momentum propelling the novel forwards. I think this worked very well and was very much in fitting with the kind of book this wants to be. As the novel advances, so do the intricacies of the plot, and I think this works to give readers a desire to read further. Whilst I was able to guess early on the direction in which the novel was heading, I still think the plot is very much where the strength of the book lies, and is great for people who enjoy a fast read.
One of the things which I think the plot made use of heavily, and which was probably my favourite aspect of the whole book, was the use of intertextual references, specifically that of Macbeth. The parallels between Shakespeare’s play and McPherson’s own novel were in abundance. As someone who has studied Macbeth in university, I very much enjoyed this. Not only does the title of the book itself reference the infamous witches of Macbeth but we also have similar themes of castles, guilt, secrets, crimes, and blood which refuses to be washed off. Whilst some of these are fairly obvious similarities, some work in subtler ways, revealing themselves as the novel progresses. I would not say that this is the most sophisticated use of Shakespeare’s plays that I have seen, but it was enjoyable nonetheless.
Whilst McPherson’s writing is not overly literary, it complements the tone and style of her book well, showing that she holds a firm command over her story. The book was not quite detailed enough in the sense of literariness to really make the characterisation as great as I would have wanted it to be, but as I have already stated, I think the plot was really what the author was focusing upon here. I also think the cover illustration is very good at summarising the tone of the book, capturing a quick, easy mystery quite well.
I went into this novel having never read any of her previous ones in the series, and I do not think that this really affected my reading experience. I felt that the book stood well enough on its own to make having read the rest of the series a bonus rather than a necessity. Whilst the book itself does deal with some slightly dark ideas, I think these are executed in a way which lightens them, making this a fun, easy read.
Have you read any of the books in the Dandy Gilver series? What did you think?
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Disclaimer – I was kindly sent this copy of the book in exchange for a review. I will only ever post my own, honest opinions, and will NOT write a favourable review in exchange for a complimentary book.