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December 18, 2006

Interactive thrillers: A Crossworders' Delight - Nero Blanc

Posted by Helen Szamuely

A Crossworders' Delight
by Nero Blanc
Berkley Prime Crime, 2006
Paperback, 3.14

There are certain professions and interests that seem to be linked to detective stories. Obviously, there are police officers and private eyes who investigate crime. But there are the amateurs and it is always interesting to see what kind of amateurs get drawn to detection in the world of the traditional (and, sometimes, not so traditional) whodunit.

Journalists are obvious candidates as they spend their time, supposedly ferreting out facts. One must admit, this is a charmingly old-fashioned view of the profession but then we are talking of an old-fashioned, though ever renewable genre. Archaelogists make excellent detectives and even when they are not the heroes or heroines, an archaeological dig makes a wonderful location and pretext for murky dealings. Agatha Christie, of course, wrote several times about archaeologists. Mostly they rescue spunky young ladies who mistakenly moon after charming but evil young men. Poor old Archie Christie paid for his philandering. But sometimes they are crooks or not real archaeologists at all and, one occasion, there is a murderer among the fraternity.

Ellis Peters's modern novels (not the Brother Cadfael ones) often revolve round archaeological digs in this country or elsewhere. Jessica Mann had a delightful series about Tamara Hoyland, an archaeologist and I wish she would go back to it. The eminent Cambridge archaeologist, Professor Glyn Daniel wrote two novels about Sir Richard Cherrington, an eminent Cambridge archaeologist. And there are many more.

One can see why that should be so. An archaeologist works rather like a detective, patiently following up clues and uncovering layers of truth. Furthermore, there is a great deal of money and obsession around archaeological digs and what one finds there. The same can apply to art dealers, art historians, art restorers - all occupations much favoured by authors of detective mysteries.

There is, however, one particular interest that seems to have intimate connections with detective stories that defies explanation and that is food - preparation of food, writing about it, cooking it, enjoying it. In fact, I have thought that in a somewhat Holmesian fashion I should like to write a monograph about food and detective stories. A great deal more interesting that would be than all those types of tobacco ash or the polyphonic motets of Lassus.

Nero Blanc's latest thriller weaves together several separate strands: there is a kind of a journalist in the form of Belle Graham, the crossword editor of the local paper in Newcastle, Massachusetts. Her husband, Rosco Polycrates, is an ex-police officer, now PI. The book, as all previous ones in this series, is interspersed with crosswords that the reader is invited to solve. But these crosswords come from a manuscript book of chocolate desert recipes whose author and audience of one Belle tries to find. A truly interactive book.

The Nero Blanc series, written by a husband and wife team and playing cleverly on Nero Wolfe and the fact that filling in crosswords is filling in blanc squares, are part of the enormous school of "cosy" mysteries in the United States. There are also the tough PI and police procedurals. What there is a slight shortage of on the other side of the Pond is solid detective stories such as Emma Lathen used to write.

This particular one takes place a month or so before Christmas, a season over which the Americans have an unfair advantage, partly because so many places have real snow and partly because they have actually kept their many and various traditions. The Paul Revere Inn is decorated by local volunteers, all delightful characters; the prized possession, a copy of Longfellow's poem about Paul Revere's ride disappears then reappears; Belle and Rosco with the help of 12 year-old E. T. Whitman manage to work out what happened; and serendipitously Belle solves the mystery of the hand-written cookery book.

To be perfectly honest the solution to the skulduggery becomes obvious fairly early to any reader who knows that no English person will ever refer to that lovely university city in the fens as Cambridge, England. The mystery of the cookery book is solved almost by magic. But the novel has a great entertainment value, what with the story, the characters (who can become a little too charming) and the crossword puzzles. A warning is needed: the puzzles are not of the cryptic variety and the solutions are often unsatisfactory as well as very American. But the chocolate desert recipes look absolutely scrumptious and I fully intend to try them out in the next few weeks.

Dr Helen Szamuely is a writer and political researcher as well as editor of the Conservative History Journal and co-editor of

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