Crimplene headscarves and high street grotesques

Charlotte Cory's tale of small-town greed doesn't hit the jackpot for E.Jane Dickson; The Guest by Charlotte Cory Faber, pounds 15.99

Knibden, the setting for Charlotte Cory's The Guest is "a town founded in folly". The Great Knibden Lottery established by royal charter in the reign of Charles II has skewed the destiny and demographics of the town for generations with its massive awards of cash. Eventually, the solid citizens of Knibden abolish the prize draw, reasoning that "any truly fortunate gain should always be explained away by some tale of hard work and accomplishment. Winning a lottery is too unequivocally lucky."

But dreams of unearned riches are solidly meshed in the town's folk memory and when a mysterious stranger dies in the Gallimore Hotel, leaving a fortune to an unnamed party, le tout Knibden is once again "in hopes." Under the fiendishly cryptic terms of the will, only "someone-who-is-not- someone" can solve the riddle and name the dead guest's heir.

Enter Hester Jones, a friendless orphan from out of town. Hester, with her "plain little pancake face" and matching personality is duly elected Public Investigator. The situation, as the author points out, has all the drama of a whodunnit without the disagreeable mess of a murder. The spirit of Cluedo is also invoked and indeed Colonel Mustard, Miss Scarlet et al could walk the streets of Knibden and not a dog bark at them.

On first sight, Cory's character's are starkly emblematic. There are Michael Milady, the Ur-theatrical who once trod the boards with Montague Cayke and his Astonishing Prancing Dogs, the Rev Gilbert Sibson, as hapless a curate as ever cracked an egg, Susie Till, the seductively bra-less hairdresser, the barking General Bensusann and Miss Bird, the mother of all embittered spinsters.

In the course of Hester Jones' investigations, however, each "suspect" is fleshed out with a full personal history; skeletons leap jangling from every cupboard, long stifled consciences are pricked and the body count is positively Jacobean.

The stranger who rides in from nowhere to open a can of worms is a reliable convention, but its success depends largely on the charisma of the stranger. Hester Jones is no Shane, no Becky Sharp; with her faithful creation of someone-who-is-not-someone" Cory shoots her narrative in the foot.

This may of course be intentional - the novel fairly hums with literary subversion - but the game, in this case, is not worth the candle. Without a clearly defined voice to marshall the parade of Knibden's grotesques, The Guest very quickly loses momentum. The lengthily elaborated fable of the historic lottery, for all its contemporary relevance, keeps coming adrift from the story and no amount of characters crying "Isn't this business of the Dead Guest's will just like the Great Knibden Lottery?" can remedy this.

Cory is an exuberant, inventive and, at times, frankly exhausting story teller. As the narrative goes cantering back three generations into a minor character's history, you long for Hester to cut to the chase. There is enough good stuff here for a boxed set of The Knibden Chronicles, but crammed into one novel, the effect is mildly claustrophobic.

Cory is at her best when she stands back and observes; alone in her dead parental house, Hester "sits on bare floorboards like a toddler with no toys." A sloppily poured drink has her licking her hand "like a dog with a wounded paw". Her distinguishing style however, is a self-conscious quaintness, a peculiarly English mustiness, redolent of Scotch eggs and hairnets.

Over four hundred pages this begins to chafe. Crimplene is a marvellous material for establishing all kinds of things from zeitgeist to social standing. A Crimplene headscarf is a signifier too far.

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