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.

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