Top critical review
Will the real Deborah Crombie please stand up?
on June 27, 2004
Deborah Crombie is a puzzling writer: how can someone who is capable of writing a book as good as And Justice There is None (her previous mystery) produce a clinker like this one, or like A Finer End (the one before And Justice There is None)?
It's hard to put my finger on precisely what makes this book fall flat, but fall flat it does. Part of the problem is Crombie's attempt to weave together two stories: a late-19th-century story and an early-21st-century story, both of which take place in the same part of the Scottish highlands and involve members of the same families. In theory, this isn't a bad idea, but in practice, the stories never relate to each other in any meaningful way.
Another problem is the amount of research that went into this book. The good news is that, as usual, Crombie did her research thoroughly. The bad news is, she wasn't able to keep her research from sticking out all over the book like the proverbial sore thumb. There's so much information in this book about how Scottish whisky is made, at times it almost reads like a how-to-start-your-own-distillery handbook. And at one point, she brings the plot to a screeching halt while one of the characters gives the recipe for an appalling-sounding dish called Cullen Skink.
Then there are the cars. Crombie spends an inordinate amount of time explaining where every car is at every point in the story, and who borrowed whose car to go where. I suppose that, if you're writing a mystery, it's important to keep a chart showing where every character and every car is at every moment, so you don't inadvertently put someone in a place where he couldn't possibly be. But, unless the "Who drove whose car?" issue is essential to the plot (and it isn't, here), the reader doesn't need to see that chart -- and, far too often, I felt like that's exactly what I was looking at.
I don't know if there's a pattern developing here, but I noticed that, of Crombie's last three books, the only one I thought was successful was the one set in London (And Justice There is None), while the two that I found disappointing were set in the Scottish highlands (this one) and Glastonbury (A Finer End). Can it be that Kincaid and James simply don't travel well? Here's hoping that Crombie's next book -- which I will read, despite my reservations about this one -- will represent both a return to London, and a return to form for her.