Behold A Fair Woman by Francis Duncan

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Behold A Fair Woman by Francis Duncan

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Category: Crime (Historical)
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Mordecai Tremaine’s Channel Island murder mystery is a typical amateur detective story of the early post-war years, but sadly not a hidden gem. The naïve style doesn’t well serve a convoluted plot and I struggle to warm to Tremaine.
Buy? No Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 240 Date: August 2016
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-1784704841

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Mordecai Tremaine is in need of a holiday. According to the blurb the island of Moulin d'Or seems to be just the destination – except the island isn't called that. Moulin d'Or is the district in the north west of the unnamed Channel Isle to which our hero has been invited by some friends of less than a year's standing: an unlikely start in itself.

Mordecai Tremaine is a hobbyist criminologist, a bit of a Sherlock if you will. Unlike Holmes however, far from indulging in illicit drugs and aspiring to be a virtuoso violinist, his other pastime is the reading of romantic fiction. He is a bumbling elderly gent clearly aimed at the Miss Marple / Hercules Poirot market for interfering souls who have somehow wormed their way into the affection of Scotland Yard.

Every private detective needs his trademark. Maigret has his pipe. Hercules his accent and his fastidiousness. Marple her village stories. From Tremaine, it is the pince-nez which he deliberately allows to slide to the point of falling off before pushing them back to the bridge of his nose in manner he believes suggestive of absent-mindedness.

On the island, he quickly falls in with a group of young people staying at the local, tastelessly modernised, hotel which shows no signs of paying its way, and with a local tomato grower, who shows every sign of earning his.

Solitary evening strolls being stock in trade for the amateur in this field, Tremaine duly obliges and becomes increasingly concerned by chance meetings and overheard conversations.

What is the tension underlying the relationships of the young guests and why is their host so inhospitable to his longest-staying residents? And what is the secret of the old mill itself?

Behold a Fair Woman, first published in 1954, is one of five in the Tremaine series by Duncan, in reality one William Underhill, who started writing between the wars while working in Bristol City Council's housing department, served in the medical corps in France as a conscientious objector during the second World War, and then became a teacher, continuing to write in his spare time: a lesson perhaps to all would-be novelists that publication does not necessarily bring fame and fortune.

If there's a reason that this amateur sleuth hasn't survived as well as the others, it is simply that he isn't as well written. I defy anyone who has read so much as a single Poirot not to have a very clear idea of the dapper little Belgian – clear enough to appreciate just how perfect the Sachs TV portrayal was and wonder at how Ustinov had the nerve to even attempt it. Having accompanied Tremaine on this island adventure, I cannot even begin to picture him. I have no accent to hear, no clear back-story to explain him.

Unless your bliss is in weaving and re-weaving potential scenarios as every last clue clunks heavily into place, with all too few red herrings for spice, this probably isn't for you. You'll be nearly half-way through before anything actually happens and then far too much needs to be explained as all the backstory justification is crammed in. The base plot is ill-served by being given this simplistic a treatment. It's an easy read, with puzzles to entertain, but there's sufficient juicier stuff on the shelves to worry about letting this one pass you by. You could try for instance Brighton Belle: a Mirabelle Bevan Mystery by Sara Sheridan.

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