Tour’s Books Blog

May 14, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: Murder in the Raw by C. S.Challinor

Ms. Challinor is an American who attended school in England and Scotland and now writes the Rex Graves series of British cozies.  Murder in the Raw is only her second book and the first of hers that I’ve read.  Not having read the first book does create a bit of an issue when trying to work out references to characters in her first novel, Christmas is Murder, especially those related to his personal life.  Several characters in this story were also in the first book that took place in England.  Here we are in the Caribbean on St. Martin where a week ago an actress, Sabine Durand, disappeared and the only evidence is a bit of bloody pareo and a broken ankle bracelet.  The local police presume she was taken by sharks as there is simply no other evidence.  Her friends don’t believe it and call in Rex, a Scots barrister of middle years, for help.  Paul and Elizabeth Winslow own the Swansmere Manor Hotel where Rex solved his first murder.  They feel the locals made little effort to determine what really happened to Sabine and they hope that Rex came solve the mystery or at least bring some closure.

Rex arrives at Juliana Airport after a stopover in Miami to see his son, Campbell, a marine science student.  Just as he’s relaxing, he finds out his luggage is lost, so all he has is his carry-on briefcase.  When clerk asks where he’s staying, he discovers Plage d‘Azure is a naturist resort, so he won’t be needing his clothes anyway.  Funny how the Wilson’s neglected to tell him that!

Rex finds his investigation slow going.  The opinions on Sabine are profoundly divided between the men and the women, Pam Farley, Penny Irving, and Antonia ‘Toni’ Weeks openly disliking Sabine.  Sabine once worked at the restaurant the Weeks owned.  Sabine is described as a bit of an actress even in everyday life.  Her connections to various guests seem to go back some years, including Paul and Elizabeth Winslow, his friends.  There was an obvious attraction between her and Brooklyn Chambers, an American millionaire playboy who is one of the few single men who comes to the resort known for its quiet, largely older, sedate, completely naked clientele. (The resort seems to be drawn from Club Orient on St Martin, the only clothing optional resort on the island and not a place for ‘swingers’.)

The local police offer what help they can, but their resources are limited.  There is suspicion that an influential developer, Bijou, is in some way involved.  He turns out to be a Dutchman, Coenraad van Bijhooven, who once was involved in prostitution in Holland and a suspect in a series of gruesome murders where every girl was found with a jewel in her navel.  Two girls have met a similar fate on St Martin.  They were blamed on a visitor who was long gone.  Bizarrely, all the dead girls bore a striking resemblance to Sabine.  Rex’s interview leaves him wondering if the man is hiding something and strongly suspecting he is responsible for the island murders, even if he has an ironclad alibi for the night Sabine disappears.

Sabine’s husband, Vernon Powell, a well known and wealthy entertainment attorney, has little cause to harm her.  The pre-nup agreement was iron clad and Sabine would have gotten little or nothing from him in a divorce.  He claims Sabine always said she had no affairs, but he seems uncertain if he believed her.  For an older man with a much younger wife, he seemed emotionally distant from her.

Brooklyn takes off, to US to take care of a business emergency.  He flies his own plane and island hops and flies himself to and from his destination.  Despite being Rex’s bungalow mate, Rex barely sees the man.  Brooklyn and Sabine rode together using a local stable, but he swears they were having an affair.

Rex follows up on Sabine’s trips to Marigot for her chiropractic therapy session for her bad back, but was unable to find any doctor using the name she provided and the phone numbers don’t go to any doctor’s office.  Whatever she was doing, she wasn’t seeing a doctor and it very likely she’d found a lover.

Running throughout the book is the back story of Rex and his two lady friends, Moira, a humanitarian worker in Iraqi and Helen, a teacher he met and experienced a strong mutual attraction to – apparently in the first book of the series.  Though Helen made her interest plain, Rex told her he could not have a relationship while Moira and he were involved, even though she’d been gone so long.  Now Helen is heading toward St Martin on a cruise and he’s not sure how he feels.  A call from his mother in Scotland reveals he has a letter from Iraqi, and she has met someone and is breaking off their relationship.  Rex isn’t sure how he feels, relieved or angry or both.  He is, however, free to explore his attraction to Helene, which is something of a relief.  Now all of this plays out in bits and pieces throughout the story.

Perhaps that’s the real problem with this story, it’s choppy and it couldn’t hold my attention after about page 130. After a strong start, the story slips into a series of compartmentalized meetings with various characters and then, to all intents and purposes, they disappear and become backdrop.  As a result, none of the characters really take on a serious presence.  Rex also starts out strongly, but even he seemed a tad flat toward the end.  Helen, who sails in, has a passionate fling with Rex, and sails away again all in one day, is typical of how Rex interacts with various characters throughout the book.

The last 40 pages, where the big reveal (AKA Who Done It) happens, were flat and lackluster.  I don’t want to spoil the ending, which was no big shock for any experienced mystery reader, but the supposed ‘big twist’ was pretty predictable.  Instead of the big scene filled with tension and gloating, we had this blah and unemotional confession that made the killer seem more politely sociopathic than sympathetic, or angry, or anything – just “I did it, so what?”  It was easily the most boring confession I’ve read.  The biggest thrill was the boat chase, but even that was tame.

I cannot help but compare Death in the Raw with G.M. Malliet’s Death of a Cozy Writer, another recent entry into the classic British golden age cozy style.  That was a much better book, its weakness being poorly developed detective characters and its strength an excellent cast.  Here we have a decently developed, if slightly choppy, detective, but the cast feels like cardboard cutouts most of the time.

Most writers using third person often take the opportunity to build the tension by allowing us to glimpse the mental ruminations of the detective as he thinks thru the case or the killer as he commits his crime and cover-up.  Other than being privy to Rex’s reactions to a nudist lifestyle, and some personal things, we get little encouragement in getting deeply involved or interested.  The descriptions of St Martin give it some sense of place, yet like much else, it’s like a toned down tropical paradise.  The nudist resort, and Rex’s initial discomfort with the lifestyle and gradual acclimation was interesting as was his interaction with the local police, but yet again there was no spark.  If that sounds lukewarm, well, it is.  Murder in the Raw lacked the passion, the tension, the depth of character, strong story line and the thrill you need to drive a mystery.  No one and nothing evoked any strong reactions from me.  It was just bland.

My Grade: C- (2.8*) NOTE:  It gets a rating of 5* from readers on Amazon as well as Barnes and Nobel, but I do seem to agree with Kirkus.

Who would enjoy this book:  Fans of the very sedate British cozy.  The rating is PG 13.

1 Comment »

  1. Good, detailed review, but I gave the book 5 stars (4 1/2) as I found it an exciting, smooth read and not at all predictable. I found the characters rather interesting and well-depicted–as far as people of the upper middle classes can be, and I liked the European flavor of the book. It got away from the cookie cutter, run-of-the-mill (contemporary) American mysteries that bloat the book shelves. I think some of the reviewers are sqeamish about the nudist aspect, but it’s really quite tame.

    Comment by Tim Gibbons — May 27, 2009 @ 11:00 am | Reply

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