Shakespeare’s Landlord by Charlaine Harris

The book, appears, at the outset, to resemble the feisty female protagonists of two series that revolve around solving murder mysteries: Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum and Nancy Atherton’s Lori Sheppard.

However, this book plays fast and loose with the usual genre limitations of crime novels, which is what it originally purports to be: there is also the simultaneous narrative of Lily Bard’s own back story. The crime elements mean the books of the series stand alone, but the development of Lily’s own story requires sequential reading.

The dual narratives are accompanied by multiple tones: from the brutally sombre (when Lily’s history is suddenly laid bare) to the earnest (the moment in the karate class when the women share a moment of vindication that their efforts in the class have real world survival implications) to the charming (Claude’s unexpected offer to take care of Lily/ the doctor’s silent provision of medication to a broke Lily) to the injected with dry levity (Lily’s succinct explanation of the threatening visual reminders of her past neutralises the threat).

There are plenty of red herrings throughout the book, in relation to both strands of the story. The slightly too friendly neighbour could just as well be a stalker-murderer; the neighbourhood ‘trollop’ (who gets her own book later in the series) definitely knows something fishy, and can a karate teacher who crosses the boundaries of student–teacher relationships whilst married to someone else, really be trusted? There is even a nasty almost-too-obvious villain – so the reader eventually realises that the genuinely nice people had to be implicated.

But the shifts in tone, and the characters’ sometimes-contradictory responses are especially believable in the context of plausible ‘real life’ reactions, even when, and perhaps especially when, heartbreaking: such as Lily’s family’s reaction to the trauma she undergoes.

Lily’s chosen job allows her exceptionally close entry into the lives of her clients; the states of their houses provides insight into their personalities. Fittingly, the solution to the murder mystery – the solution to which feels almost incidental to the overall storyline – lies in a domestic article – a set of curtains.

The book felt quite visual in its telling: perhaps already halfway to being a screenplay? There is some conjecture that perhaps some elements of the story – a strong young woman overcoming extreme adversity – were autobiographical. The overall impression from the book is one of strength – summed up in Lily Bard’s refusal to change her name, signifying her refusal to give up any more of her identity than has already been brutally wrested from her. Interestingly, it was agreed that the author photo seemed at odds with her often difficult subject matter: she ‘looked’ like she might belong to a world more easily relegated to cosy women’s fiction full of baking and gentleness.

 

The next book for discussion will be: The House of Rumour by Jake Arnott

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