Books: Country wiles

Joan Smith on bucolic butchery; Honey-Dew by Louise Doughty Simon & Schuster, pounds 10

The American name for crime novels is "mysteries". If they are set, like Agatha Christie's Miss Marple books, in an English village, they are called "cosies", no matter how gruesome their murders. What the reader expects is a puzzle which is not solved until the final pages, and the reassurance that comes when everything is put to rights by a wise amateur detective.

Louise Doughty's new novel recognises these conventions and sets out to break them. Her corpses, the middle-aged Mr and Mrs Cowper, are the first characters we meet. They have already started to decay. There are no tidy cadavers here for the maid to dust round, and it soon becomes obvious who killed them. An elderly spinster, Doughty's equivalent of Miss Marple, is as interested in completing her own novel, in which the victim is choked to death by the snails which crawl into his mouth, as she is in solving the murder in her Rutland village.

The novel is narrated, in part, by a local journalist who regards the murders as her chance to sell a big story to the nationals. Obsessed by the minutiae of their own lives, and what they can get out of the story, none of the characters shows much interest in the abstraction - justice - which motivated Christie's sleuths. So why should the reader, especially if he or she is expecting a traditional crime novel, keep reading?

The answer is, to some extent, the picture Doughty paints of life in an English village. Her portrayal of its loneliness, of a milieu whose inhabitants regard even immediate neighbours with wary suspicion, rings true.

One character, looking at an old photograph of the village, is struck by the number of shops, long closed, and the way people used to talk in streets which are now deserted. The community Christie described in the 1930s has disappeared, leaving empty houses whose inhabitants commute to the town: a setting in which the double murder Doughty describes could easily take place.

Something is seriously wrong in the Cowper household, and has been for years before the stabbings, but no one outside the tight-knit family takes the trouble to read the signs. Doughty has created a setting in which violent death tears apart the social fabric, as in a golden-age crime novel, but only to reveal how strained it was in the first place. Order cannot be restored because it was always an illusion, so the novel's satisfactions lie elsewhere: in the taut prose, the voices of the characters, and the way Doughty uses a tired formula to satirise sentimental notions about country life. It is also a darkly comic and disturbing reminder of the messiness of real life, and of people's ability to absorb the most startling events - even murder.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Ashdown Group: Lead Web Developer (ASP.NET, C#) - City of London

    £45000 - £50000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Lead Web Develo...

    Tradewind Recruitment: Key Stage 2 Teacher Required in Grays

    £21000 - £40000 per annum + Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Key Stage 2 tea...

    Recruitment Genius: Software Development Manager

    £40000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Tradewind Recruitment: Humanities Teacher

    £120 - £180 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: The Humanities Department of this ...

    Day In a Page

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee