Murder Most Cold (2023) by Victoria Dowd

Victoria Dowd is a former British barrister-turned-novelist, head of the London Crime Writers' Association and author of the darkly humorous, award-winning "Smart Woman's Mystery" series – "a modern take on the Golden Age of crime fiction." The series debuted with The Smart Woman's Guide to Murder (2020) and comprises, as of this writing, of five novels. I heard about Dowd and this series in passing, but only really came to my attention last December.

Steve Barge, the Puzzle Doctor of In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, picked Dowd's Murder Most Cold (2023) as the best book of the year (The "Grand Puzzly" Award). Giving it props for "the sheer originality of a locked lake mystery" and "finding a sensible way to make it work." A locked lake mystery, you say? A traditionally-styled mystery with an original-sounding take on the impossible crime story always does the trick for me. So immediately tossed Murder Most Cold on the list of the locked room novels and short stories, published between 2015-25, as material for the lengthy addendum to "The Locked Room Mystery & Impossible Crime Story in the 21st Century." First let's see what this so-called locked lake mystery is all about.

Murder Most Cold is the fifth, and latest, entry in the "Smart Woman's Mystery" series and Dowd included an introduction for new readers, "The Mökki Murder Papers," answering the question "just exactly who are these Smart Women?" Ursula Smart, "your guide through this particular circle of hell," is the main character of the series and its slightly unreliable narrator. Pandora Smart is her mother and the operating brain behind their family blog/podcast, Death Smarts, where she relates their close brushes with death and numerous killers ("often exposes intimate facts about her family..."). Charlotte Smart is Ursula's somewhat eccentric aunt who recently moved in with her sister and niece. Breffni Spear ("it's an old Irish name") is only referred to as Spear for obvious reasons and is Ursula's love interest. They met on a previous case that made him a widower. Lastly, there's the self-proclaimed associate of the group, Bridget Gutteridge, who has a pet monkey fittingly named Dupin.

I should note here that Murder Most Cold contains references to previous novels without giving away key details, which I very much appreciated as series today tend to be less episodic than their Golden Age predecessors – often integrating ongoing character-arcs with the plots or use them as subplots. So stepping in the middle of a series nowadays can be a different experience than, say, cherry picking your way through the bibliographies of classic writers like Christopher Bush, Brian Flynn or E.C.R. Lorac (see my review of Dan Andriacco's The English Garden Mystery, 2022). Fortunately, that proved to be less of an obstacle with this series, however, Murder Most Cold probably would have hit differently had I been more familiar with the characters.

Murder Most Cold begins with Spear proposing to Ursula and she said yes, which turned her mother in a terrifying creature known as the wedding planner. Ursula wants to get away from the spotlight of her mother's blog/podcasting empire and they opt for a Winter Wilderness wedding holiday in Northern Lapland ("husky rides, sledges, skiing"). So the whole group bundles up and travels to the Finnish wilderness for the private wedding ceremony where they'll be staying at a group of mökkis (cabins). A small holiday retreat run by a Londoner, Tapio, who's their less than gracious host who cheats on his Finnish wife, Aino. Helmi is their unhappy, twenty year old daughter who tried elope with the general handyman and reindeer wrangler, Matthias ("carries deep-seated belief in the old spirits and myths of Finland"). Now she just mopes, calls out her father's philandering and smoking weed. And the owner apparently knows Spear from somewhere.

In this atmosphere, Ursula begins to get the wedding jitters and second thoughts, but then the situation takes an unexpected, dramatic turn. Tapio is found fatally poisoned at the same time Spear disappeared into the night. Just before, Ursula had overheard Tapio trying to blackmail Spear over past secrets. On top of that, someone "cut all the phones and smashed the Wi-Fi box" while the bodycount begins to steadily climb. Midway through the story an impossible discovery is made when someone, who had been present only hours ago, is found underneath a thick layer of ice of a small lake that had been frozen solid for weeks – a veritable ice-locked tomb! So let's tackle this "locked lake mystery at the icy heart" of the plot.

Firstly, the idea of fresh body spotted underneath the thick, icy surface of a solidly frozen lake is unquestionably original, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired. If you're going to introduce a locked room murder or impossible crime, particular one that can be safely described as out of the ordinary, you're obliged to do something with it. I can see why Dowd's explanation is absolutely necessary for the overall plot to work, but (SPOILER/ROT13) vg jnf bayl znetvanyyl zber npprcgnoyr guna n gjva, qbhoyr be rira n ybbx-n-yvxr qhzzl and this story really needed a good, satisfying explanation to the locked lake mystery orpnhfr Qbjq jnyxrq onpx ba jub jnf qvfpbirerq vafvqr gur ynxr. Fbzrguvat gung zhfg unir pbzr nf n fghaavat, zvqjnl gjvfg sbe ernqref jub unir orra jvgu gur punenpgref sebz gur ortvaavat. Vs lbh'er tbvat gb tb onpx ba gung, lbh ng yrnfg fubhyq unir n qrprag fbyhgvba sbe ubj gur zheqrere znantrq gb trg gur obql vafvqr na vpr-frnyrq ynxr. Cybg-jvfr, gur sebmra ynxr fubhyq unir fgvyy cbfrq na bofgnpyr sbe gur xvyyre gb olcnff. Being a somewhat practically-minded Dutchman, I simply assumed the body had been fed into the lake through a subsurface pipe or drainage system.

What about the rest of the story? That's a mixed bag of tricks. I credit Dowd for trying to find a happy middle ground between the sugary, cozy-style mysteries and the grimmer, character-driven thrillers with various degrees of success. So you get the collection of quirky, colorful and bantering characters placed in actually dangerous situations with actual stakes. Nobody is guaranteed to live to see the end of the book. This certainly gives an edge to an otherwise traditionally-styled detective novel, which is excellently played out during the first-half as the wedding atmosphere begins to deteriorate into horror with the bodies piling up around them. During the second-half and especially towards the end, it began to feel like the story wanted to have its cake and eat it too. For example (ROT13), Oevqtrg pbzvat gb erfphr va gur raq evqvat ba gur onpx bs n ervaqrre, “ynapr uryq bhg va sebag bs ure nf cebhq nf n zrqvriny xavtug,” juvpu V nffhzr jnf qbar gb yvtugra gur zbbq, ohg vf vzzrqvngryl sbyybjrq ol n zragnyyl-jbea qbja, abj becunarq Uryzv fubbgvat gur zheqrere guebhtu gur urnq. Be grnfvat Cnaqben vf abg tbvat gb fheivir ure thafubg jbhaq (“Lbh pna'g qvr. Lbh pna'g rire qvr. Ohg fur pbhyq”) bayl gb unir ure fheivir nsgre nyy.

The characters and, more importantly, the plot failed to catch me, but there's something to be said about the evocative setting with its deep, dark and frozen wilderness populated with creatures and spirits of Finnish folklore – lit up with the ghostly green of the Northern Lights. One thing that can be leveled against the neo-GAD writers is that they either retreat into the past or go out of their way to take the modern world out of the equation, which is not entirely untrue. It makes writing and plotting a classically-styled whodunit or locked room mystery so much easier, but D.L. Marshall's John Tyler series has shown it can be more than a gimmick to turn back time for a game of Cluedo. Something the traditionalists of today should take into consideration, because I think exploring specialized, often remote settings can stamp a distinguishable personality of its own on these new GAD-style mysteries. Marshall gave a couple of extreme examples with John Tyler solving seemingly impossible murders on a germ infested island or a nuclear bunker in the Arctic Circle, but why not one set during an expedition in Antarctica or exploration to an abandoned village on a Japanese island gone wrong. Basically turning the modern detective story into an urban explorer. It has fascinating, largely untapped possibilities and one thing Murder Most Cold did very well was tying the plot to the setting.

Hopefully, this lukewarm review can be deemed fair, because I wanted to like it on account of it being the "World's Only Locked Lake Mystery," but Murder Most Cold simply didn't do it for me. I'm afraid this series just isn't for me.


  1. Depending on your definition of "locked-lake mystery", I'm not sure this is the ONLY one. Ace Attorney 1, Case 4, features a murder in which two people are alone on the only boat in the middle of the lake. One is shot and killed, and the murder weapon is certainly the gun being held by the other man in the boat -- however, that man is innocent, despite the overwhelming proof of his guilt...

    However, the set-up to this novel is something else entirely! It's a shame the execution wasn't as solid as the ice the body was found under...

    1. One of the stories from Banner Deadlines also fits this mould, though I forgot the name.

    2. If you define a "locked lake mystery" as a lake where an impossible crime takes place, this is far from the only or even first of its kind. From Joseph Commings' "The Spectre on the Lake" to Robert Innes' Ripples. Yes, the set-up deserved a better execution/solution, but that addendum is starting to shape up into something interesting.