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The Ghost Tree by MRC Kasasian

December 29, 2020
Book cover of The Ghost Tree

In 1914 Betty Church’s best friend Etterly Utter goes missing. The last place she was seen was near the King’s Oak, somewhere which will forever be associated with her disappearance. It is a mystery that will remain for many years, lending a supernatural air to the old hollow oak. But when a skeleton with a necklace belonging to Etterly is discovered near Sackwater, Betty, now Inspector Church, is soon back on a case which she had attempted, and failed, to solve nearly 26 years ago.

I have to admit I was initially disappointed in this entry in the Betty Church series because it was set in 1914. I found Betty irritating at this age and didn’t really manage to properly engage with her everyday life, although well written and with a sense of solid historical accuracies. I had grown used to the ragbag group of Sackwater police officers and wanted more of the same.

So I regrouped by buying the audiobook, because Emma Gregory’s superb narration really brings Betty’s world to life for me. 

This time it was a solid sit down to the finish through a really well-crafted murder mystery; and a lesson to me as a reviewer to clear my head of preconceptions and absorb what’s in front of me, not to judge the story by what I think I should expect.

Once Etterly disappeared the narrative really took off and I began, once again, to appreciate M.RC. Kasasian’s storytelling acumen.

Betty as a child is a very different prospect to Betty as a police inspector. That she has a long way to go makes for an interesting encounter with the local police sergeant when he questions her over Etterly’s disappearance. It is both hilarious and excruciating as the young naïve Betty allows the sergeant to steer her innocent answers into incriminating territory. But this is one of the talents of Kasasian as a storyteller. He somehow manages to run outrageous, sometimes slapstick humour, alongside the sinister and unpleasant.

Those characters who could be a figure of fun, the eccentric First World War shattered Superintendent Vesty, for example, are a way to really bringing home how ordinary people’s involvement in world events carved physically and emotionally into an entire generation and that the same looked about to happen all over again.

This is cozy crime Agatha Christie style with something deeply disturbing rippling along beneath the outward respectability, gentility and buffoonery.

Once in 1940, the plot hots up even further as the skeleton is found, providing numerous twists and turns, as well as the opportunity for Betty to show her ingenuity and that the very dotty police constable ‘Dodo’ Chivers may not be as daft as she appears.

The Ghost Tree plunges Betty into a very dark world which challenges her need to make a bad world right. Given that this is only the beginning of the Second World War, which has already begun to make itself felt on the quiet and unassuming Sackwater, future Betty Church novels promise to be very interesting.

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