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Blotto, Twinks and the Dead Dowager Duchess by Simon Brett

Buy Blotto, Twinks and the Dead Dowager Duchess by Simon Brett at Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com

Category: Crime (Historical)
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Linda Lawlor
Reviewed by Linda Lawlor
Summary: A light and amusing but ultimately rather disappointing work by a well-known and prolific author.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 192 Date: July 2010
Publisher: Constable
ISBN: 978-1849013178

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There is a long tradition of country house murder novels, and Simon Brett has a glorious time parodying them in the Blotto and Twinks series. All the stock characters are there: the dim but honourable young man, the clever and emancipated young woman, the loyal lower orders and the dastardly (and preferably foreign) villains. Death is treated in the most light-hearted, almost off-hand manner, and danger is as regular an occurrence as kippers for breakfast. In hands as experienced as Simon Brett's this should be a rich mine for comedy, and to some extent it is, but still, it has to be said, something is lacking.

Blotto and his brainy sister Twinks are dragged to a weekend party at Snitterings, home of the Melmonts. Poor Blotto is unhappy about this not only because the hunting there will be far inferior to anything he can find at home, but also because he suspects his mother intends to finally lure him into an engagement with Laetitia, the daughter of the household - who is more vulgarly known as the Snitterings Ironing-Board because of her dismal lack of contours. As routinely happens on these occasions someone is murdered, and this time it is the Dowager Duchess herself. Clues abound, notably the sign of the League of the Crimson Hand helpfully painted on the unfortunate lady's back. The know-it-all polymathic amateur sleuth who happens to be a member of the house party immediately declares Corky Froggett, the Tawcester chauffeur, to be the culprit.

So far, so good. Several of the most cherished institutions of the crime novel have been thoroughly mocked, and the stage is set for a rollicking chase as Blotto and Twinks hurry off to battle the villains and free the innocent chauffeur.

But this is where the book begins to feel a little stale. This has nothing to do with the plot, which manages to cram in an admirable number of set pieces including a splendid aerial dog-fight and a colourful visit to an opium den. Blotto remains foolish but courageous, and Twinks satisfyingly out-thinks the opposition without ever losing her charm and femininity. The disappointment comes from the language.

In the hands of a master like Wodehouse, the circumlocutions of the nobility are a constant source of amusement. Bertie Wooster is as incapable of calling a spade a spade as he is of completing the Times crossword or explaining the beauties of calculus, for example. But the comedy comes because these phrases are used lightly: they indicate a person's status and intelligence quotient, and demonstrate the playful, even insouciant attitude to life which comes from having the money and connections to solve most problems. In this book, however, the constant barrage of whimsical language soon begins to grate. To describe swift movement as like a cheetah on spikes once or twice is amusing: after the fourth or fifth time the reader will start grinding their teeth. And while the blue-bloods may indeed look down on the lower classes, they do not take, even in a parody, every slight opportunity to denigrate them. The word oik is also seriously over-used.

All this is a real shame, because the book as a whole contains many real gems of wit and graceful phrasing, some of which may provoke the reader to bursts of laughter. The only conclusion to draw is that Mr Brett had an excellent idea for a series but (understandably, after more than eighty books) could not find within himself the energy to create something original from the many elements he had at his disposal.

Thank you to the publishers for sending this book to Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion: L C Tyler writes very funny gentleman-amateur-detective novels: try The Herring in the Library. You could also read There Goes the Bride by M C Beaton.

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