Sun, Sea and Murder (2024) by J.S. Savage

In March, I reviewed J.S. Savage's fantastic debut, The Mystery of Treefall Manor (2023), patterned after the great detective novelists and locked room mysteries of old – a high spot of the new crop of impossible crime novels and short stories. So looked forward to the second appearance of Inspector Graves and Constable Carver in Sun, Sea and Murder (2024), which was released last April. However, the book does not feature Graves and Carver.

The Mystery of Treefall Manor is a historical locked room mystery, set in 1926, plotted like a 1936 Golden Age detective novel. Sun, Sea and Murder has the appearance of a contemporary cozy, but a cozy with a plot, multiple narrators and a seemingly impossible murder. Well, my expectations were successfully subverted. So off to a good start, I suppose.

The backdrop of Sun, Sea and Murder is Russell Aspell's sunny resort, The Orange Tree Hotel, on the Spanish coast where the four different narrators come together on holiday. Firstly, there's Russell's niece, Sally, who's on a cut-price holiday with her childhood friend, Jasmine. Secondly, Marley and her mother, Agathe, whose painful joints keeps her in a wheelchair most of the time. Thirdly, the boorish Terry and his wife, Marjorie. Lastly, the journalist Sanjay and his boyfriend, Luke, who's a solicitor on a busman's holiday to go over the hotel accounts. Sally, Marley, Terry and Sanjay decide to keep a holiday diary, some written on their phones, which means every chapter is from a different view – what they record are not lazy, uneventful days under the Spanish sun. Jasmine's ex-boyfriend, Dylan, is staying at their hotel with his new girlfriend, Elle, killing her mood ("Jasmine has spat venom about Dylan every time he is in sight"). Terry has some longstanding grudge against Russell ("...dream about strangling Russell bloody Aspell"), Luke uncovers irregularities in the hotel accounts ("... it's an off-the-books transaction") and past incidents come bubbling to the surface. So nothing too seriously, or so it seems, but several days later, Marley and Marjorie find Russell's body in the hotel gym.

Russell had been struck over the head several times, presumably with a metal bar, but the door to gym is opened and closed with registered key-cards. Every time a card is used, it's logged on the hotel computer and the logs show nobody else had entered while Russell was in the gym doing his morning routine ("in the books they call it a locked-room mystery"). So who killed him, why and how was it done?

The task of answering those questions falls on the shoulders of the inspector de policia, Moreno, but Russell's long-time friend, Penny Haylestone, decided to run her own private little investigation – much to the chagrin and annoyance of Moreno. Penny Haylestone is not merely a meddlesome, self-appointed amateur detective trying to find the killer of her friend. She's an ex-Secret Service member, "recruitment and interrogation were my specialities," who recruits Marley as her Watson. Moreno is not the only obstacle in their way, "old grievances, false confessions, and improbable love triangles all helped to obscure." Not to mention a second, rather gruesome murder muddying the water even further.

So everything looked promising and the whole setup from the four narrators to the locked room murder had me genuinely puzzled, but unfortunately, Sun, Sea and Murder is a marked stepped down from The Mystery of Treefall Manor. That has several reasons. First of all, Savage plays only marginally fair with the reader this time as the clues are thinly spread around with the clues to the motives being extremely obscure, which made them feel like it came out of nowhere. Not really a fair play mystery novel that allows the reader to put all or most of the pieces together before the detective. In that regard, it reads much more like a first novel in which the author is afraid of giving away too much, too early, and holds his cards too close to his chest. That was not an issue at all with the previous novel. Secondly, (SPOILER/ROT13) jung, rknpgyl, jnf gur cbvag bs univat sbhe qvssrerag aneengbef? Va n ybpxrq ebbz zlfgrel, ribxvat gur Tbyqra Ntr qrgrpgvir fgbel, lbh jbhyq guvax gur qvssrerag aneengvir ivrj cbvagf vf tbvat gb cynl n ebyr va gur fbyhgvba. Fbzr aneengvir gevpxrel zhfg or nsbbg, fbzrjurer. Vf vg n fgenatref-ba-n-genva fvghngvba jvgu gjb xvyyref gnxvat pner bs rnpu bgure'f ivpgvzf naq gur qvnevrf vf gb xrrc gurve fgbevrf fgenvtug? Vf bar bs gur aneengbef npghnyyl fbzrbar ryfr sbe fbzr ernfba? Abcr. Vg'f whfg gb gvr gurve crefbany ceboyrzf gvtugre gb gur znva cybg. That came at the cost of everything the story did, or tried to do, right.

The link between the first and second murder is brilliant with the motive to the first murder bordering on being original, if they had been presented, and clued, more fairly – which is sadly even more true for the locked room murder. The locked room-trick could have worked had Savage not so jealously guarded certain key details. How can you expect (SPOILER/ROT13) nalbar gb fbyir gur ybpxrq ebbz-chmmyr jura gur qhzooryy vf abg zragvbarq hagvy Unlyrfgbar'f rkcynangvba? Jul rira jvguubyq gung qrgnvy? Gung guveq urnq jbhaq jbhyq unir nebhfrq Unlyrfgbar'f fhfcvpvba ertneqyrff, abe jbhyq vg unir qrfgeblrq gur ybpxrq ebbz vyyhfvba. There's another thing that baffled me a little. The Mystery of Treefall Manor not only is an outstanding historical locked room mystery, but one that feels like the genuine article without having to constantly remind you of the time period. It's honestly one of the most elegantly written and plotted pastiches of a Golden Age detective novel. By comparison, Sun, Sea and Murder seems to be written with a checklist in hand to remind you it's set in today's world. Maybe it's just me, but it just felt odd.

I still enjoyed reading Sun, Sea and Murder and futilely trying to piece together the solution, which is always half the fun of detective stories, but expected so much more from Savage after his excellent debut. So, hopefully, Savage returns to the retro-Golden Age (locked room) mysteries of Graves and Carver in his third novel or applies the same plotting standards for Penny Haylestone's second outing.

No comments:

Post a Comment