Sunday, August 24, 2014

MURDER AT MULLINGS by Dorothy Cannell: A Review

A Florence Norris Mystery
Dorothy Cannell
Severn House Publishers; May 1, 2014
Hardcover, 256 pages
Historical fiction, mystery, cozy, England
About the book
In its 300-year history, there has never once been a scandal at Mullings, ancestral home of the decent but dull Stodmarsh family. Until, that is, Edward Stodmarsh makes an ill-advised second marriage to the scheming Regina Stapleton, who insists on bringing her family's 'ornamental hermit' to live on the estate. Suddenly everyone wants to visit Mullings to glimpse this mysterious figure. Strange but harmless, thinks Florence Norris, the family's longstanding housekeeper. But events take a sinister turn with the arrival of sudden, violent death - and suddenly the hermit doesn't seem so harmless after all.
My review
Turn of the century England -- When fourteen-year-old Florence Norris first arrived at Mullings to work as a kitchen maid, she was to discover that, despite the  serene splendor of velvet lawns, formal gardens, expansive waterfalls and productive home farm, the house of Dovecote Hatch wasn't a world populated by heroes and heroines. A voracious reader of adventurous fantasies, Florrie's vivid imagination had been immediately transported, by the grandeur of that countryside estate, in one of those books of fiction she avidly consumed till the wee hours of the night, but the neighboring gentry's gossips soon woke her up to a much different reality: the Stodmarsh, owners for generations of that idyllic estate, were hereditarily a dull lot of people.
No scandals of unfaithful wives, or tales of forbidden loves had ever happened within the walls of Dovecote Hatch. No legends of insane relatives locked in its turrets, or duels fought in the first lights of down. Lacking the kind of charm and wit common among those sons and heirs who sowed wild oats before settling down in perfectly arranged marriages, the Stodmarsh had never done anything to bring dishonor on their name. That is until the 1930s, when a thirty five year old and widowed Florence returned to the estate as a housekeeper.
The mysterious death of Lady Stodmarsh and Lord Edward's decision to  have a second go at marital bliss with Regina Stapleton will irrevocably change that peaceful estate. Lady Stapleton's arrival in the village, along with her eccentric family hermit, stirs a series of ripples that thrust centuries of Stodmarsh shallow waters into dangerous sea changes.
The temptation to have a taste of "Downton Abbey-ish" glamour right at my fingertips (the period drama will resume only in January here in the US) was too strong to resist. Although not familiar at all with the author Dorothy Cannell and her previous work, I sank my teeth in her mystery novel without hesitation: my expectations in terms of Edwardian England historical setting,  cozy mystery flair, vivid account of upstairs/downstairs social dynamics, language authenticity, and atmospheric descriptions were not disappointed.
However, I believe the novel is afflicted by all the picadillos typical of prequels: as Ms. Cannell clearly intended Murder At Mullings to be the first installment of a mystery series featuring housekeeper sleuth Florence Norris, a  streamlined narrative is not the strength of the book. In the attempt to lay the ground work for a continuation of the series, the author introduces a hoard of characters, each with its own colorful peculiarities, overcrowding the narration with background information, supporting cast that pops in and out, interactions and dialogues that do not really work towards the main scheme of things.
The flow of events was too bumpy and uneven to keep me focused on the plot and this is what had me scratch a couple of stars from the my final rating. What prevented me from losing my interest entirely was the rich texture  of some of the passages, the historical authenticity of  language and scene setting, the elegant descriptions of the estate, the delicate romance between Florence and kind widower George Bird. Overall, I didn't find in the narrative enough appeal to sustain my interest in future installments. 
My rating
3.5 out of 5 stars
Historical facts about ornamental hermits

"Tracing its distant origins to the villa of the Roman emperor Hadrian in the second century AD, the eccentric phenomenon of the ornamental hermit enjoyed its heyday in the England of the eighteenth century It was at this time that it became highly fashionable for owners of country estates to commission architectural follies for their landscape gardens. These follies often included hermitages, many of which still survive, often in a ruined state.

Landowners peopled their hermitages either with imaginary hermits or with real hermits - in some cases the landowner even became his own hermit. Those who took employment as garden hermits were typically required to refrain from cutting their hair or washing, and some were dressed as druids. Unlike the hermits of the Middle Ages, these were wholly secular hermits, products of the eighteenth century fondness for 'pleasing melancholy'.

Although the fashion for them had fizzled out by the end of the eighteenth century, they had left their indelible mark on both the literature as well as the gardens of the period. And, as Gordon Campbell shows, they live on in the art, literature, and drama of our own day - as well as in the figure of the modern-day garden gnome."
(From Hermit in the Garden by Gordon Campbell)


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