More Tepid Than Intrepid

I’d like a mystery heroine to be less of a Mary Sue and more like Harriet Vane. Not like the protagonists in the first two “Aunt Dimity” novels. #fb Aunt Dimity’s Death (Aunt Dimity Mystery) (9780140178401): Nancy Atherton: Books

From Publishers Weekly

Despite its buoyant tone, this blend of fairy tale, ghost story, romance and mystery proves a disappointment. First novelist Atherton creates a potentially appealing heroine in bewitched and bewildered Lori Shepherd, but never places her in danger, thus sacrificing suspense. Recently divorced and newly bereaved by her beloved mother’s death, Lori is scraping by as an office temp in Boston when she receives a letter from a Boston law firm informing her of the death in England of Miss Dimity Westwood. Lori is shocked because she had thought adventurous Dimity was her mother’s fictional creation, the star of made-up bedtime stories. Courtly lawyer William Willis and his attentive son Bill inform Lori that Dimity left instructions that she and Bill go to her Cotswolds cottage to prepare a collection of “Aunt Dimity” stories for publication. They find the cottage haunted by the ghost of Dimity, who blocks their efforts to trace the secret of her WW II romance with a gallant flier. That all ends happily comes as a surprise to none but Lori.

I’d have to say that the review above, from the Amazon product page, is fair. Based on the other reader’s reviews, Atherton’s Aunt Dimity series is either loved or panned by mystery readers. I admit to giggling a few times as I read it, but also shook my head at how the main character came off as a total Mary Sue. It’s a wish-fulfillment story and then some; the setup is that all kinds of people have been conspiring to keep the protagonist, Lori Shepherd, in the dark about people who have her best interests at heart until long after they’re dead. She spends a lot of time grubbing around for answers when she’s been given the writer’s dream commission: free use of the most charming, yet cozily haunted cottage in the Costwolds while writing the foreword to a collection of “Aunt Dimity” stories culled from Dimity’s letters to Lori’s mother, to be published posthumously. And also, free use of a handsome young lawyer who seems to be unusually interested in her and the “Aunt Dimity” mythos. A childhood toy rabbit gets repaired, too, and is part of how Dimity communicates from beyond.

Although the story picks up a little once Lori gets to England and starts asking questions about Dimity Westwood, her mother’s wartime friend, it remains a frothy puff-piece to the end. There’s no physical danger or conflict to add suspense, and the romance is a big dud; William, the young lawyer (who lives at home with his stereotypically crusty father in their stereotypically grand Boston mansion), turns out to have known about Lori all her life, because he got his own version of “Aunt Dimity” stories as a lad. To him, she’s a dream girl, and he struggles with the reality of her as a defensive, cranky, wet mess. But still he loves her, as this is a Mary Sue story, and she must be loved no matter how unlovable she appears to be at the beginning of the book.

There are some rather engaging ancillary characters who become Lori’s fast friends; they’re almost like human agents of Dimity Westwood’s, after her death. Before she died, the husband restored the cottage to a lavish degree, and the wife redesigned the back gardens into a most un-English paradise. They’re the most fully realized of all the characters, and in fact the second book in the volume I bought concerns their first meeting, and their odd experiences in a Cornish chapel. They never actually meet Dimity in the flesh in that novel, but she’s seemingly just offstage in London.

Somehow, Dimity Westwood controls everything in the first book from beyond the grave, making astonishing repairs, moving things along, locking doors to unwanted intruders, and even communicating with Lori via a ghostly journal that writes itself and answers questions. The only mystery is what it was that broke Dimity’s heart and caused a breakdown during WWII, because she refused to talk about it to her best friend, Lori’s mother, and still refused to answer questions about it via the journal.

It’s all ridiculous and silly, and I was more than disappointed; I was irritated that someone could write something like this (and a number of twee-sounding sequel installments) and get published without resorting to fan-fiction websites and

I originally started this post in August, and eventually finished the second book sometime in September. I actually liked that book better than the first one; more after the “jump” as I’m not going to put this all on the front page.

Aunt Dimity and the Duke by Nancy Atherton

Book: Aunt Dimity and the Duke

This second book in the “Aunt Dimity” series concerns the backstories of Emma and Derek, the neighborly couple who looked after Dimity’s Cotswold cottage (and had many paranormal experiences after her passing). It turns out that Dimity somehow did a little matchmaking, through a pair of very old and eccentric friends, and ensured that everything fell into place for Emma and Derek, and also for the mysterious Duke of the title.

There’s a lot of stuff about a mysterious missing magical lantern, and a mysterious color-changing stained glass window, and a mysterious old scandal about a bunch of rock musicians who drowned in the Duke’s yacht years before, but really this is a cozy little romance with pretentions to mystery. As in the previous book, Emma and Derek are the most grounded and sympathetic characters, and also as in the previous book, there’s a man of taste and wealth. This one offers them anything they’d like so long as they stay and help him restore the ducal manor to its former glory. Also as before, clothes are freely given; very beautifully made clothes that transform the formerly mousy Emma into something of a well-crafted fashion plate, and turn family black sheep Derek into something a bit more posh and befitting an Earl’s son. There is actually a violent act in this book too, but no one is seriously hurt and there is a convenient bit about the victim not remembering or seeing the attacker clearly. And it all turns out to be an unfortunate misunderstanding, really. Nobody goes to jail. Bah.

There is also a stuffed bear named Bertie, who is suspiciously well-informed. All of his hunches prove correct, as reported by Nell, Derek’s young daughter by his first wife. This wife died, tragically, in order to make Derek a more sympathetic grieving widower, with two young children to raise. Sniff, sniff. Poor thing.

This book isn’t really about the duke of the title, it’s about how Derek and Emma had odd experiences in a Cornish chapel, possibly paranormal, which led them to fall in love… but wait a minute. Dimity’s not yet dead at the time of this novel, at least as far as I can work out. Yet she seems to act as if she is all-knowing and all-powerful, working from behind the scenes and appearing at just the right times to comfort small boys with her Jedi mind tricks. Her spinster neighbor lady friends are also in the right place at the right time to send Emma toward the duke’s manor, with its woefully neglected gardens, where Derek is working on restorations and explorations of the half-ruined building. The duke himself had become acquainted with the elderly twin-set when his car suddenly crashed into their front garden – again, a coincidence and not ghostly interference, because Dimity was still alive and well and living in London until after this novel closes. Still, it’s written as if she’s somehow influential or acting as a medium, though perhaps the actual ghost is her old friend, the Duke’s dead grandmother.

Now that I think of it, this book is simply lousy with aristocratic characters, both of the hereditary kind, and the fashion and musical kind too. That’s all well and good, but there’s something a little too sweet, too lightly confectionery, about these books for my taste. Atherton’s work would appeal to women readers who don’t like nasty icky things like ugly old clothes, mean ungenerous people, and nasty violent bloody murder. Her books are not going to be a satisfactory read for someone who expects a little blood, a little guts, and a complete absence of Mary Sue-like central characters from their favorite mystery novels.

I’ve been a mystery fan all my life, and I’ve been ruminating of late on why it is that we find violence and murder so entertaining. Movies, television shows, books, plays; we rate violent death as less disturbing to children than sex between consenting adults. Death can even be funny, if handled in the right way (especially on crime shows for their annual Halloween episodes). And that’s kind of disturbing in itself, but also understandable; we laugh at that which we cannot understand, or avoid forever. For some reason, being unexpectedly thwarted is funny to us as a species.

This is why shows like “Castle” and “The Mentalist” are fun to watch, even though horrible things happen to people which must be investigated. That there’s a little romance in both of these shows is a given; I cheered last night when Rigsby blurted out his love for Grace Van Pelt on “The Mentalist,” which was actually more interesting than the murder they were investigating. Still, it was satisfying that the solution was found and the murderer was caught.

Same with the Halloween episode of “Castle,” which included the complete geek’s most wonderful pagan holiday gift: Nathan Fillion in a Mal Reynolds costume, complete with a musical cue from the “Firefly” soundtrack. Awesome. The mystery was also a nod to former “Buffy” fans (Fillion was one of the more memorable antagonists late in that show’s run), and its solution was satisfactory, if a little too tidily wrapped. Still, the party at the end looked fun, and Castle’s love interest Detective Beckett revealed another facet of her personality: she’s got a goofy sense of humor, but like a lot of very-pretty girls, she’s not willing to make herself look ridiculous or unattractive just to go to a Halloween party. But wacky chest-bursting puppets with glowing LED eyes are the perfect fashion statement under a sharp little shorty trenchcoat.

Book cover: Dorothy L Sayers Gaudy Night

It’s possible to write a good, even a great mystery story in which nobody dies (there’s even a great Doctor Who episode in which nobody dies). One of my favorite mystery novels ever is Dorothy L. Sayers’ “Gaudy Night,” and although there’s a lot of enjoyable nostalgia, a poison-pen blackmailer, some romantic excursions, and lengthy discussions of academic life, there’s no murder – yet it’s still a great read. I’m always sad when I finish re-reading it, and I’ve actually visited Oxford (where the book is mostly set) several times with favorite scenes and lines running through my mind. Someday, I’ll even talk my husband David into taking a punt on the river and try to find the massive continuity of ducks.

I don’t think I’ll be re-reading the Atherton books, or driving around Boston or London or the Cotswolds looking for locations where they were set, or cherishing favorite lines or scenes. Although I commend Atherton for going against the convention that a mystery novel must have at least one murder and many disturbing violent acts to succeed as a book, I don’t think she’s been able to substitute other kinds of peril in order to generate enough suspense for her heroines. They’re just too passive… they stand in the center of the story in bewilderment, waiting for a kind man to take them by the hand, give them nice things, and let them discover late in the penultimate chapter that they’ve been loved and adored since first meeting in Chapter Two. The only satisfactory character development for the heroines is when they finally snap, chew out the hero, and comically discover that they’ve been in love with them all along (well hello, Mary Sue)! In the meantime, the “mysteries” are revealed (and yes, the female protagonists have something to do with driving the inquiry), but they are not really so very mysterious.

Although I’d like to find a good series of modern mysteries whose author is still alive, kicking, and producing a novel a year, I’ll just have to get used to disappointment.

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