A killer is on the loose in Provence, France, in the latest Joe Sandilands novel, "Strange Images of Death," by Barbara Cleverly. The story opens with an unsettling scene of wanton destruction committed by an unidentified and clearly mad individual. Cleverly then segues to Joe Sandilands who is driving his "niece," fourteen-year-old Dorcas, to visit her father, the charming but impractical Orlando Joliffe, a self-indulgent bohemian who is charming but not overly paternal.
Although Joe and Dorcas are unrelated, the bachelor has an easy camaraderie with this bright, sensitive, and sometimes sarcastic young lady. Joe, a Commander at London's Scotland Yard, hopes to drop Dorcas off and proceed as soon as possible to Antibes on the Riviera to enjoy his vacation. Alas, the detective's plans for a period of rest and relaxation are thwarted. One reason is that Dorcas, who was nurtured lovingly by Joe's kindhearted sister, Lydia, asks him to track down her birth mother, whom she never knew. When Joe and Dorcas arrive at their destination, the grand and ancient Chateau de Silmont, they find Orlando with a lively group of male and female companions. They are spending the summer squabbling, drinking, painting, modeling, sculpting, dancing, writing poetry, taking photographs, having affairs, and letting their children run wild. Cleverly evokes the free and creative spirit of the time (1926), when daring artists such as Picasso and Matisse experimented with form, line, and color. Surrealism was just coming into vogue. Although Joe agrees to stay with Dorcas for a day or so, he remains far longer. First, he agrees to look into the aforementioned act of vandalism and, later, the untimely and unnatural death of one of the guests. Although he is working only in an unofficial capacity, the experienced Sandilands puts his finely-honed powers of observation and deduction to good use.
"Strange Images of Death" is literate and intelligently written, although Cleverly's heavy-handed use of British period slang, laced with too many exclamation points, can be a bit irritating. Still, the author's wit, keen eye for detail, and feel for history and art make this an entertaining and appealing mystery. Joe, who speaks fluent French, joins forces with Commissaire Jacquemin of Paris and Lieutenant Martinueau of Marseilles to assemble the pieces of a complex and baffling puzzle. Although this investigation is time-consuming, Joe keeps his promise to Dorcas, making inquiries that will lead to surprising information about her parentage. Cleverly's style may not be to everyone's taste, but patient and thoughtful readers will be amply rewarded not only by the involving whodunit, but also by allusions to the "inhuman acts of destruction" that took place during the first World War, leaving many soldiers dead or scarred for life; the disturbing portrayal of decadent individuals who live for the moment; and the astute analysis of the ways in which dysfunctional people inflict irrevocable harm on themselves and others.