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The Room of the Dead by M R C Kasasian. Book review

September 4, 2019

Silhouette of a 1930's policewoman walking along a beach with barbed wire

After the excitement of the Suffolk vampire, life in sleepy Sackwater has settled once again into its usual mundane monotony for Inspector Betty Church and her colleagues. The highlight of the day being trying to find lost slippers. But when a body is found on Sackwater’s beach and people begin to go missing, then life for Betty, like the war, begins to move on apace.

I was introduced to Betty Church through the audiobook of Betty Church and the Suffolk Vampire. This meant I was able to read this second book with Emma Gregory’s wonderful array of character voices in my head.

It is true the incompetence of Betty’s fellow police officers beggars belief. Indeed, the story does at times feel like quite a pantomime. But that’s the fun of this series and you need to approach the book with the frame of mind of pulling up a ration-free mug of tea and plate biscuits, then sit back to luxuriate in the well plotted story.

The way the characters were developed in the first book means that meeting them again is like meeting old friends who would disappoint you if they didn’t do what they do. Much in the same way you crave for Private Frazer in Dad’s Army to rumble “We’re all doomed” at least once an episode with impeccable timing. No matter how many times you watch the vintage BBC comedy and know what’s coming (yes I can speak the lines with the characters), there are still nuances of performance or set design to look forward to. There is very much a Dad’s Army feel about the Betty Church series and is why they should be enjoyed for the same reasons no matter how many times you read the books.

If you’re struck down, as I have been recently by summer flu, you need a comfort read to distract you while you cough and sniffle your way through your bedbound day. The Room of the Dead was as soothing as a hot toddy.

However, comedy will only work if the delivery is impeccable. The reason the two Betty Church novels work so well is the competence and quality of M R C Kasasian’s writing. It takes a very assured author to pull off pure slapstick and Kasasian is all that. One minute you’re chuckling at Betty’s rapier wit internal commentary, then your suddenly plunged into the stress of a potentially life-threatening situation. At times, the two can even occur concurrently.

It helps that the much put upon Betty arrived in the first novel pretty much fully formed and acts as the fulcrum for the whole show. The word indomitable does come to mind, but this is wonderfully offset by things never going quite right for the poor woman, yet she keeps going. It probably doesn’t help that Betty is living in the shadow of her godmother the truly indomitable March Middleton of The Gower Street detective series. But if you have read those you can see a very different March in the Betty Church series and understand, given her abrupt and intolerant guardian, the legendary detective Sidney Grice, how she developed into the woman consulted by heads of state. I have a feeling that come the 1960s Betty will be in the similar position.

I was also struck with the authentic feel of the time (which now is at the beginning of the war, before Dunkirk). I spent a great deal of time gleaning insights into this time from my grandparents and parents, all of which resonates with Betty’s world. There is a wonderful attention to detail which says Kasasian has done his homework.

As this series is set, for the moment in the second world war (think Foyles War), there is terrific room for manoeuvre and developing characters amongst some very well thought out murder mysteries.

The Room of the Dead was courtesy of Head of Zeus via NetGalley.

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