Books: Fiction in brief

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The Independent Culture
2 Honey-Dew by Louise Doughty, Simon and Schuster, pounds 10. Those who know Louise Doughty from Crazy Paving, her hilarious and highly successful comedy of office manners, will be surprised at quite how dark her new book is. That's not to say that Honey-Dew doesn't have its moments of humour. But as a murder story with a satirical edge, it aims to be more discomforting than satisfying.

Set in rural Rutland, the plot focuses on Alison Akenside, a young reporter on the local paper who lives alone in the pretty village of Nether Boweston. So far her journalistic experience has been limited to writing up the annual pancake-tossing competition and tracking down a disappearing consignment of bananas. But when a middle-aged couple are found murdered in their home on the edge of Nether Bowston itself, Alison finds herself covering her first real story.

Mr and Mrs Cowper have always kept themselves to themselves behind the preternaturally neat front lawn of their ugly modern cottage. What possible motive could a murderer have? And what has become of their teenage daughter Gemma, who has been missing since the attack? The fact that we are told whodunnit - Gemma - at an early stage suggests that this is not going to be a conventional murder mystery.

Although there's nothing blatantly post-modern in her style, Doughty uses a range of sophisticated literary tricks in her deconstruction of the type of cosy English detective plot beloved of her most irritating character, an elderly would-be Miss Marple. Doughty's manipulation of shifting perspectives leaves our sympathies in a state of confusing ambivalence. And she has enough twists up her sleeve, including a horrific act of infanticide that's closer to Alison than she'd like to admit, to keep us reading.

The only trouble is that Doughty's knowingness has the effect of keeping us at arm's length from her characters. In the Cowpers, she gives us a chilling picture of the secret, sado-masochistic heart of the traditional family which is more Ian McEwan than Agatha Christie. But though her depiction of submission and control in a home where the father timetables his daughter's every movement is both absurd and shocking, it provokes very little in the way of emotional response and lacks genuine psychological depth.

This may be an unreasonable criticism, as Doughty explicitly comments on the dehumanising nature of the murder story. In fact her book is superbly readable - lightweight perhaps, but highly literate and beautifully put together by a writer with a canny eye for detail and an easy, flexible prose style who really knows her craft.