The Withdrawing Room, by Charlotte MacLeod. Five out of five stars, a tip-top comfy and clever cozy mystery. This is one that stays with me for comfort reads. Original copyright 1980, I think it’s also out on Kindle now, but very much worth tracking down a paperback if you can. There’s nothing quite like leaning back with a hot cup of cocoa and the madcap antics of someone struggling to keep a business afloat and still find out if any of their tenants is a murder suspect.
Note, this is the second book in the series (after The Family Vault), but it was the first one I read when I found this author *cough* decades back. I recc’ the whole series, though one or two of the later books aren’t as funny as the earlier ones; I never could get into The Palace Guard. I definitely recc’ all of the Peter Shandy mysteries by the same author.
So what makes this book such a great comfort read? Several factors. The first being a set of memorable and eccentric characters (and suspects), the majority of which are decent people with manners.
(I’m seriously feeling the lack of everyday manners in society lately. Reading a book where people use them is a nice mental vacation.)
Second, the main character and accidental sleuth, Sarah Kelling. Left widowed and in serious financial trouble by the shenanigans of certain now-deceased relatives (covered in book 1), she’d decided to fight for the finances she has left by turning the ancestral Boston townhouse into a high-class boarding house, putting on a show of a hostess with grace and elegance while, behind the scenes, acting as chief cook and bottle-washer to get the work done. The book expertly conveys the sense of frantic determination and word to deal with grief, without ever descending into despair. It is an emotionally healthy book; part of the message being that it’s perfectly normal and okay to break down crying washing the dishes, as long as the minimum of dishes do get washed.
And then, of course, there are the murders. This is not a gory book. The murders happen “off screen”, and while there’s enough description that you can imagine the carnage if you must, there’s no blood shoved in your face. Someone’s died. It might just be a horrible accident….
Of course, it’s not. And in the course of figuring that out we get to meet a cast of characters that include an elderly woman with a keen eye from salvaging things to get by, a gypsy fortuneteller, an art detective, and enough social gossips to run a bar out of Long Island Iced Tea.
I personally like that it’s a very efficient book. 188 pages, and the story does not wrap up the last details until that very last page. Then it stops. Just in the right place for you to put the book down, take a breath, and slowly come back to reality instead of 20th century Boston.
All told, a comforting, well put together mystery that’s fun to read over and over again.
(And who knows; maybe someone reading this will be inspired to write a modern mystery with good manners. Rebuild the culture, one book at a time!)