This second entry in Marthe Jocelyn’s Aggie Morton series — featuring juvenile sleuths inspired by both Agatha Christie and her arguably most famous creation Hercule Poirot — contains much of the charm that made the series opener stand out, but also falls down in ways that leave me a little underwhelmed.
12 year-old Aggie and her best friend, Belgian refugee Hector Perot, are away from Torquay for Christmas, visiting Aggie’s recently-married sister Marjorie at her new home, Owl Park, in Tiverton. Owl Park, being the family pile of Marjorie’s husband James, comes complete with servants, plentiful rooms, and James’ 10 year-old niece Lucy who is simply agog to meet Hector:
“Aunt Marjorie said you were foreign,” said Lucy to Hector. “I didn’t know if that meant brown or peculiar.”
“If this is the only choice,” said Hector, “it is logical to deduce that I am peculiar.”
They aren’t the only guests, however, with Aggie’s Grannie Jane also in attendance and, Marjorie’s school friend Kitty Sivam and her husband Lakshay also joining the fun, the latter bearing a mysterious, immensely valuable emerald that he feels duty-bound to return to the temple from whence he believes it stolen several decades previously…an emerald that carries a mysterious curse which had afflicted all who sought to keep it for themselves. Stir in a troupe of actors brought in to provide entertainment on Christmas Eve, and it’s only a matter of time before the emerald disappears and a body is found in a puddle of blood in (of course) the library. Are the two events connected? And, if so, who is responsible?
There’s a lot to enjoy here, not least that Jocelyn’s precocious heroine is simply fun to be around, invested with plenty of internal life that works both when she is sleuthing…
“Please may we stay, James?” I said. “It’s not my first dead body.”
He put an arm about my shoulder. “You do realize that’s not a normal thing for a young lady to claim?”
…and in the wider life she inhabits, such as the sadness experienced at the death of her father almost a year ago:
How to explain the tremble from my ankles to my scalp when I passed the door of Papa’s study and knew he was not there to wink at me? How to describe the ache in my throat when I turned the pages of his dictionary or stood in his dressing room with my face pressed to the sleeve of his velvet smoking jacket? How to relate the moment, many times in a week, while we ate our supper when Mummy, Grannie and I each found one another’s eyes resting on Papa’s empty chair?
Crucially, Jocelyn’s kids also behave like kids: they’re thoughtless at times as people can be — witness Aggie, Hector, and Lucy utilising a secret passage to look into the library when they’ve been banished from the presence of the body, with Aggie hogging the spyhole much to Lucy’s frustration — but also get caught up in the excitement of Christmas and the nervousness of being in a new environment, aware of the changes around them (Marjorie is now Lady Greyson and must behave as such, switching it on at times as befits someone adjusting to her new responsibilities). There’s also a pleasing sense of obligation, with Grannie Jane becoming complicit in Aggie hiding the murder from her mother in letters she writes home…yet this not quite being enough to dismiss any misgivings Aggie my have about (technically…) lying.
Elsewhere, the effervescent Lucy is full of enthusiasm for the adventure that lays before them, bombing around the house both above and below stairs as she chases down leads and seeks to involve herself in proceedings. Only really Hector seems slightly out of kilter, an older man possessing a 12 year-old boy’s body, but since he’s effectively a retcon of Hercule Poirot this isn’t as discombobulating as you might suspect…and, in fact, Hector definitely has a reduced role in this book, so his decidedly unboyish attitude doesn’t distract as it otherwise might. And when he is on the page, it’s often in scenes of such childish delight that you can’t help but get Famous Five vibes in the best possible way:
Dot had delivered the supper tray and gone away, leaving Grannie Jane — despite the many stairs! — to oversee our cozy supper. Chicken soup with tiny dumplings, salted butter smeared on warm bread and a blackberry jam tart. With the fire leaping and snow hurling itself against the windows, we ate our feast and were just a wee bit merry.
The overall tone of this is so cannily marshalled, walking the line between the seriousness of a murder investigation and the jolly japes of a kiddish adventure with marvellous aplomb, that I didn’t even mind how slowly it felt things were progressing at times. There are a lot of interviews, which generally fail to uncover anything new, and a lot of sneaking around the same rooms and having a lot of similar conversations, but it’s excellently written and the pages really did fly by even if I was acutely aware that there didn’t seem to be much progress being made. If nothing else, the seasoned Agatha Christie reader will have a lot of fun picking out Christie Easter Eggs, with references to Murder on the Orient Express (1934), And Then There Were None (1939), and 4.50 from Paddington (1957) among others craftily dropped at unexpected times.
And then the solution comes and…well.
There are several occasions in the book where Hector’s application of logic is, er, far from watertight, with assertions that the murderer must be someone in the house or that the victim must have been talking to his killer when overheard before the murder took place being little more than, frankly, guesswork. And this is perfectly acceptable in a way, because these kids are kids and so are going to get certain things wrong. An infallible sleuth can be horrendously uninteresting (just ask Anthony Berkeley), and an infallible child sleuth would be even less interesting since we expect youngsters to make mistakes when dealing with an adult world beyond their ken. When the chief suspect offers an alibi that apparently absolves them of any responsibility for a later deed, Aggie accepts it even though it clearly has holes you could drive a four-horse carriage through…and it’s only a few pages before she realises her mistake and so throws the puzzle into doubt again.
When the weaknesses in application of logic and rigour are those of the author, however, it’s a little harder to bear. Which is not to say that the solution offered doesn’t make sense — it does, I can’t fault it on those grounds — but rather that the means by which the answer is reached, while leaning pleasingly into the Miss Marple-esque influence of Grannie Jane, is again mere guesswork, with any of the highly entertaining possibilities that Aggie has entertained throughout the book equally likely and not exactly dismissed by the eventual solution. Frustratingly, the reason there didn’t seem to be much in the way of clues is because there really isn’t much in the way of clues, and this highly entertaining historical romp winds itself up almost by picking at random the one person unsuspected to that point and deciding that the mere surprise of their guilt is sufficient. I really wanted there to be some clever moment where I had overlooked an obvious interpretation of a clue or had been distracted by one event and so failed to see the significance of another — this is the exact thing I read detective fiction for, after all — but, alas, no.
And so I leave Owl Park conflicted. Jocelyn has a wonderfully light touch with her Christie-inspired sleuths, and her rendering of time, place, and character is skillful and pleasingly hands-off, showing — rightly — a huge amount of confidence that she has given you just enough to communicate her intent without needing to cram Historical Details Gleaned From Research down your neck. So I love how Jocelyn writes, I would just like there to be a little more grist to detective mills of what she writes, so that the mystery elements of this were a little more involved and utilised the dark arts of misdirection a little more adroitly. I imagine I’ll read further in the series, the two books thus far have been too much fun to give up just because this slightly undersells its potential, I just hope to see a little more mystery for our Mystery Queen to grapple with in future.
The Aggie Morton, Mystery Queen series by Marthe Jocelyn
- The Body Under the Piano (2020)
- Peril at Owl Park (2020)
- The Dead Man in the Garden (2021)
- The Seaside Corpse (2022)