Any Man’s Death by Hazel Holt
Allison and Busby, 2009
In a change of pace from my recent reading, I’ve just completed this novel (via the library) by the refreshing Hazel Holt. Any Man’s Death appears to be the nineteenth in this series about Sheila Malory, of which I’ve read quite a few, but not for some years. This title launches straight in and no explanation is given of Sheila’s circumstances, so a new reader might not immediately realise that she is a writer, animal-lover and lively widow who has a rather conventional lawyer son, Michael, and a best friend, Rosemary. She encounters many murders among the villages on the south coast of England, and solves them in brisk fashion.
Any Man’s Death follows this formula, and it’s a light, diverting read. The book is set in the village of Mere Barton, near to Sheila’s home. While she’s visiting friends there, someone suggests that it would be nice if there were to be a history of the village in book form, in common with other local villages. The retired district nurse, Annie Roberts, a busybody who organises everyone and is chair of all the committees, zeroes in on Sheila and persuades her to undertake the task. Hence Sheila visits most of the residents, to a man and woman the comfortably-off middle class, in order to collect their photographs and memories of the old days. Most of them, however, are people who’ve made or inherited money and moved to the village, often to retire, as it is nowadays too expensive for families who have lived there for generations to afford. This is all we hear of the less-well-off, though – the book is firmly about the vicar, the MP, the horsey landowner, the ladies of the manor and the owners of the village shop (now an upmarket delicatessen); it is not sullied by cleaners, cooks or bottle-washers, nor does it concern anyone young.
Soon, inevitably, someone dies, and Sheila is convinced it is not by accident. She believes that her research may have uncovered a secret that somebody wants buried, so for the rest of the book she continues to meet and interrogate the cast of characters, in the guise of having sherry with them or inviting them for cream teas in local cafes.
Despite the “otherworldliness” of this novel – are or were things ever as described here? – it’s a pleasant, undemanding read with plenty of amusing little observations, such as the shock experienced when coffee is served in a mug rather than a cup. (The Wire this is not.) The formulaic quality means that the only character with any life is the charming Sheila, so it is a bit hard to feel engaged in who committed the murder or why – it could be any one of the characters and it is really of little consequence to the reader’s emotions as to which one it turns out to be (if any). The author does not take much opportunity to convey past ways of life and compare them with the present, as she might have done given the theme of the book. And the plot, such as it is, depends too much on Sheila finding previously overlooked pieces of paper among her collections, and so on. Nevertheless, if you don’t mind setting aside reality, the friendly, confiding and chatty tone of the novel will while away a spare hour or so easily enough.