Deborah Crombie’s blurb on the cover of Ashley Weaver’s debut mystery, Murder at the Brightwell, says it all: “An elegant Christie-esque 1930s romp.” Quite a change from the college student/amateur sleuth (The Life We Bury) and the Pennsylvania noir police procedural (Dry Bones in the Valley) that were the first two entries in the competition for the Edgar Award for Best First Novel by an American Author.
And romp it is, if you like beautiful people doing fabulous things in an exclusive hotel with a dark undercurrent of skulduggery and murder. Amory Ames is a wealthy young woman, married five years to Milo, who stole her away from fiancé Gil Trent. Now they mostly lead separate lives, hers at home and his out gallivanting. Let’s just say he’s good looking, charming, and quite popular with the ladies. Amory’s ripe for reconnecting with Gil when he shows up, seeking her help in discouraging his niece from marrying a good-looking ne’er-do-well. His plan is to bring Amory along to a holiday at the Brightwell, where her sad experience with Milo will serve to illustrate to the lovely Emmeline what a big mistake she is about to make. He’s hoping she’s willing to behave as if they are back together as a couple… and she’s willing to do so because she is frankly annoyed with her husband and doubting their future together.
At the hotel, there’s a mixed group of characters (just like Agatha Christie!), including rapacious women, stodgy men, a handsome actor, cruel husbands… They’re all lightly and skillfully drawn. It’s frothy amusement until Emmeline’s bad-boy-fiance Rupert turns up dead, conked on the head and thrown over the cliff onto the rocks below. Various characters come under the suspicious gaze of canny Inspector Jones, who develops an easygoing rapport with Amory, and when said gaze falls upon friend Gil Trent, Amory goes into overdrive to determine which of the hotel guests committed the murder. She is aided in her efforts by husband Milo, who is undertaking an effort to win Amory back… at least until some details emerge which cause our heroine to wonder if her husband is himself the guilty party.
Of course, that’s not the case, but once the crime is neatly solved, the couple cannot bring themselves to admit what is completely clear to the reader: that they belong together. I won’t spoil that surprise for you!
So, comparison time. Brightwell is a lovely book of its type, well-written, albeit lightweight. Impossible to complain about the characters, plot, or pacing. I briefly wondered if it would be as good set in present day and decided it would not; although I am sure there are plenty of idle rich among us in 2015, any book that featured them would require either a heavy dose of irony or one of cynicism.
Is it likely to win the Edgar? Stepping outside of Lunchbox mode, I’d have to say no. Reviewing the Edgar database, I see plenty of spy novels, police procedurals, and thrillers that won the Best First Novel award. Is it worthy of a win, from my perspective? I enjoyed the book, but it is definitely outdone by Dry Bones in the Valley. But the quality of the writing and plotting gives Brightwell a decisive edge over The Life We Bury.
- Dry Bones in the Valley by Tom Bouman
- Murder at the Brightwell by Ashley Weaver
- The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens
ps- thumbs up on the cover and title for this book! I had previously complained about Dry Bones and Life, noting that neither the books’ titles nor their cover art made any sense to me. Everything about Murder at the Brightwell is spot on, including the title, artwork and typography. Well-done, Minotaur.