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September 24, 2007

Crime in Colorado: Dark Tort - Diane Mott Davidson; Aunt Dimity Goes West - Nancy Atherton

Posted by Helen Szamuely

Dark Tort
by Diane Mott Davidson
Avon Books, 2007
Paperback, 4

Aunt Dimity Goes West
by Nancy Atherton
Viking Books, 2007
Hardback, 10

One of the great advantages of reading American detective stories is that they happen all over that large country and one can travel without leaving one's armchair or London Underground, much as one would like to do the latter. There is a certain amount of this in British mystery writing as well and one gets reasonable descriptions of the more sordid parts of Edinburgh in Ian Rankin's books or Manchester in Val McDermid's novels, as well as some of the counties, such as Kent in Dorothy Simpson's police procedurals. Sometimes, for no apparent reasons, whole counties and towns are invented as was done by the late Catherine Aird with her Calleshire series.

Colorado sounds an absolutely beautiful state and both these books excel in their descriptions, Dark Tort taking place in the snowbound winter months, while Aunt Dimity Goes West describes the place in summer. But one has to have more than just descriptions of breath-taking scenery and recipes such as both books provide. This is where things start going wrong - though I must admit that I enjoyed reading both these mysteries, the Aunt Dimity one perhaps a little more than Dark Tort.

Diane Mott Davidson's heroine cum detective is the caterer Goldy Schultz, who has had various personal problems in the past but appears to be sorting them out, what with a hunky husband who is a cop, her son and his recently discovered half-brother (yes, there is a sort of an explanation) and the usual collection of warm, understanding friends and colleagues as well as tough old battleaxes with hearts as soft as butter. I suppose these books belong to a particular American tradition that one might call Jacksonian or, in a more modern way, the Little House tradition. At the heart of it there is the community with its old-fashioned values - though these tend to be rather liberal in the present-day American sense of the word, and display a dislike of outsiders and of big business (or even relatively big business). The world created in these books is quite attractive but sadly self-righteous and frequently infuriating.

Goldy caters for a big legal firm and has to set everything up on Thursdays for the Friday breakfast meetings. Rushing in slightly late with the ingredients for bread one evening she literally falls over the dead body of the attractive young paralegal, Dusty Routt, who also happens to be Goldy's friend and neighbour and an offspring of a permanently victimized family. Dusty's mother hates the police and will not give them any help, asking Goldy to find her daughter's killer instead. Goldy dutifully proceeds to do this while whipping up delicious meals as part of her catering business. Her cop husband is an expert cook as well and there is a young man to help out whenever needed.

The investigation goes through legal shenanigans, suspicious deaths in the recent past, art theft and ends up with a somewhat inadequate explanation for the murder but the length of the book would have exhausted most readers by that stage.

In fact, the need to describe in great detail every character and every event slows down the action quite considerably, thus giving the reader a chance to calculate a timetable and to find that, unsurprisingly, the years in which events happened in the past do not add up. For example, a crucial event in twenty-one year old Dusty's life was her seduction by her high school drama teacher, followed by a pregnancy, discharge from school and subsequent miscarriage. This, everyone says in a hushed tone, happened in the dark ages when a girl would not have been believed if she reported that her teacher had seduced her. The dark ages? Three years previously? Colorado can't be that different from the rest of the world.

Lori Shepherd, her twin sons, their nanny and Aunt Dimity are visitors to Colorado from a delightful English Cotswold village. Actually, Lori is American but she and her husband elected to live in that delightful village in a previous novel of the series. The village can exist only in the imagination of a dotingly Anglophile American who, herself, lives in Colorado.

This is my first Aunt Dimity novel and, like most people, I have found myself beguiled by the whimsy. Aunt Dimity is, in fact, dead. She could be described as a ghost and she communicates with Lori by writing responses to questions and observations made by her in a blue-covered diary. Lori also has a pink rabbit called Reginald and somewhere along the way they acquire another ghost who writes in the diary as well. He, mercifully, disappears when his job of saving Lori and her children is done.

At the beginning of the book Lori is recovering in that Cotswold village from a near-fatal tangling with a homicidal maniac (no, I am not sure I understand it either). Her lawyer husband decides to speed things up and sends her, the twins and the nanny on a holiday to Colorado where a client of his had built a large and beautiful house. Needless to say there is something odd going on in the house or somewhere near it and Lori spends a good deal of time trailing round in the company of a young and good-looking caretaker as well as "discussing" matters with Aunt Dimity. She also sees identical twins to the people she knows back in England in Bluebird, Colorado. This, as it happens, is entirely plausible, since, as Aunt Dimity wisely explains, people in small towns do tend to be quite similar all over the world.

Eventually, the plot speeds up, the dark deeds are uncovered, a historical mystery is solved (hence the ghost) and a fatal explosion is averted. It all sounds very silly but somehow intensely likeable in its unpretentiousness. It is so pleasant to find an entertaining detective story that does not aim to make comments about the world, which just always happen to be left of centre.

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


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