Sally Wright’s Pride and Predator was another goody from my recent box’o books my friend sent me. I’m going to start by saying that I’d never heard of her or these books, but my attention was caught by the setting (Scotland—my friend must’ve been on a major Scotland kick) and the time period: 1961. The back cover copy said it was reminiscent of Golden Age detective fiction. That was enough for me.
If you like dense, well-plotted mysteries, then this will be right up your alley. And if you like old school mystery fiction, you’ll love this. I found it very like Ngaio Marsh in nature, from the methodical clueing to the lavish descriptions. In my opinion, that’s not a bad thing at all.
The plot is simple enough—a much-loved church pastor has arranged with long-time friend Alex to go on an annual nature hike, but he never arrives at their meeting place. His body is discovered near an open picnic hamper, dead from anaphylaxis caused by an allergy to bee stings. No one initially thinks twice about this except Alex, the local Laird, who knows Jon well enough to know he would not have had any kind of picnic hamper with him on a walking trip like this. Alex mentions these suspicions to his friend Ben Reese, an American archivist who has arrived at the family estate to value the family heirlooms. Reese is something of an amateur detective as well, having worked in Intelligence during WWII, and after he examines the hamper, he concludes that there might be cause to think that Jon has been very cleverly murdered. Numerous other crafty attacks take place, and the murderer makes many attempts at misdirection, but at the end of it all, Ben figures it out and nabs the killer in the act of attempting to silence someone who can connect him to the crime.
Here’s what I liked: I liked Ben, both as a character and as a detective. He’s complex enough as a character to make him interesting—his WWII background, the fact that his wife has died not so long ago, his knowledge of history and artifacts, his sense of presence and command. This last one is important because, of course, he’s only looking into Jon’s death unofficially, hoping to uncover enough evidence to get the police to re-open the case; as such, no one has to say a word to him, and yet even the most recalcitrant suspect or witness seems unable to tell him to buzz off, willingly answering his extremely prying and sometimes impertinent questions. I appreciated his methodical work in going through his list and checking things off and sitting back and thinking things through. There are no coincidences here.
I also liked the murder method (I know that sounds wrong, but bear with me). One of the things I adore about Ngaio Marsh’s books is that she invented the most creative methods of killing people—a magnum of champagne falling on someone’s head, having someone baled up in bale of raw wool—I like cleverness and creativity so much more than just bashing someone on the head or shooting them. That takes no real thought at all. But arranging to have someone who’s allergic stung by bees—now that takes some cleverness. I like to think that the bad guy is going to be a worthy adversary, you know, and not just some thug with access to a gun or a bust of Julius Caesar.
I found the secondary characters well-drawn in general, not as well done as Ben or Alex or a few of the other major players, obviously, but given enough life that they weren’t simply cardboard figures being shoved about to suit the author’s purpose. There were no wasted words or unnecessary scenes tossed in just for atmosphere, either. Everything Wright puts in this book has a purpose. And with that in mind, I’ll also note that the author did her homework with regard to things like beekeeping. Although it would be going too far to compare the information on beekeeping to something like Dorothy L. Sayers’ research into change-ringing for The Nine Tailors, I did a little quick fact-checking and found no inaccuracies. In fact, I found it all rather interesting—not enough to become a beekeeper, mind you, but still. Interesting.
Where I thought this book did not succeed was with the dialogue. First, some of it was just too stilted to sound natural. Second, there seemed to be a reliance on a few words or phrases to suggest a Scots dialect, like the characters constantly saying “a’tall” for “at all” or “verra” instead of “very” (I was grateful, mind you, that there wasn’t a single “ooch aye” in there). For me, this didn’t convey a dialect so much as convey an author sprinkling a few phrases throughout with the hope that that was enough. I’d have preferred she just didn’t bother because after a while I started to feel an urge to count the “a’talls” to see how often she was dropping it in there. It got a bit annoying.
One other thing that really bugged me was the sudden shifts in the point-of-view, which I found disconcerting. I’d be reading a passage about what Ben was planning to do next and suddenly find myself inside his head and in the first person, then oops, back to third person with no warning. It was jarring.
Pride and Predator gets off to a bit of a slow start, but it’s really worth sticking with it. I can honestly say that I had no clue who the killer was until the final confrontation between Ben and the bad guy. I’m not stumped all that often, so if a mystery is fairly clued and I can’t figure it out, then I consider that an endorsement.