I’ve read a lot of books over the past couple of months, not all of which proved quite right for Shiny. The following are two very gentle, very undemanding novels that work well on their own terms and only missed the cut because they were a little too sweet and cosy for a general recommendation.
Francesca and the Mermaid by Beryl Kingston
This is a romantic fairy tale in modern day dress. Francesca is on a holiday cruise with her partner, the intolerably bumptious Jeffrey, when she spots a mermaid splashing in the waters. Surprised by the sight, she finds herself confiding in a fellow passenger, Agnes Potts, who is older and a little infirm, but sprightly in spirit and a straight talker. As the days pass it becomes clear to Francesca that the mermaid is a harbinger of great change and a sign that she should put her life in order. Jeffrey is behaving even more obnoxiously than ever, and by the end of the holiday she decides to leave him. Agnes invites her to stay with her in Lewes, offering Francesca a wonderful retreat from the world in her untidy house, and while recovering the lost shape of herself, Francesca decides to start painting again, taking the mermaid as her first subject. This painting will introduce her to widowed Henry Prendergast who owns the local potteries, and who has plans to alter Francesca’s life in all possible ways.
There’s an almost magical moral universe at work in this novel, in which Francesca’s fortunes just get better and better, despite the villainous Jeffrey’s rather weak attempts to derail her. Creativity, success, friends, love, security, money, all begin to shower down upon her, and we are told, often, that this was the happiest of all times for her. In fact, the insistance on paradise and good fortune ended up making me feel that some terrible sadness had been at work in the author’s life, this was a novel of such fierce wish fulfillment. And then I noticed that the dedication was to a lost son. There might be no connection at all; best to pay me no attention. In any case, this is the novel to give to someone going through hard times who wants uninterrupted comfort in their reading. The good characters are richly rewarded, their lives healed and their desires satisfied, whilst the bad characters get their comeuppance. It is charming, and sometimes touching but it can be a little overwhelming in its goodness.
The Whitstable Pearl Mystery by Julie Wassmer
Set over the course of Whitstable’s annual oyster festival, this is the first in what I imagine will be a new crime series featuring Pearl Nolan, a seafood restaurant owner who has always harboured a desire to become a detective. Years ago, a teenage pregnancy prevented her from entering the police, but now that Charlie is grown up and away at university, Pearl has a little more time on her hands and she starts a fledgling private investigation agency out of a shed at the bottom of her garden. And then it just so happens that she stumbles upon a couple of corpses in quick succession, one of which is her old and dear friend, Vinnie, a local fisherman, the other the first ever client to call upon the services of her agency.
Curious and determined to become involved in the investigation, Pearl dogs the footsteps of the Chief Inspector assigned to the case, Mike McGuire, in a way that in real life might well earn her a charge of obstructing the course of justice. But eventually her knowledge of the local area, and the local people, provide her with some useful leads. The investigation is also easing Pearl over a difficult time in her family, as Charlie’s new and perfect girlfriend, Tizzy, is driving a gap between mother and son, and we’re given a hint that romance between Pearl and Mike McGuire is not entirely out of the question.
This is a very easy book to read (the author is a regular writer for Eastenders, in case you’re interested) with a strong sense of place and a neatly unspooling plot. The characters are lively and well-drawn, and it’s essentially one of those novels that feels as if you’re watching a good quality midweek television drama. I did enjoy it, and it’s well-constructed, so it’s hard to say what holds me back from a full appreciation. I think it lacks a bit of spark, something to make it more memorable than it is. But in all honesty, I hardly ever read the first book in a crime series as I tend to think they are never as good as the ones that follow subsequently. If you enjoy relatable, cosy crime then definitely consider giving this one a try, and I’ll certainly be curious to see where the author takes her characters as the series continues.