Oxford Mourning, by Veronica Stallwood

Actually I read three books by Stallwood, the first three in her Kate Ivory series set in Oxford. Often an author’s second book fails to live up to the promise of the first. Usually, that first book has been labored over for years while the author tried to get it published. Not only is it impelled by the vigour that pushed the author into writing in the first place, it has been critiqued by writing classes, polished and repolished by the hopeful author. The second book is often a rushed affair, to meet a contract deadline, and suffers from the lack of a long gestation and multiple revisions.

Not here. Well, technically even the first book in the series, Death and the Oxford Box, is Stallwood’s second crime novel, her first being the stand-alone Deathspell. Reading these three books in succession, the second being Oxford Exit, gave me the opportunity to watch the author grow from book to book, trying increasingly harder techniques, achieving more complex and resonant stories.

In the first book, writer Kate Ivory takes time out from working on her latest historical romance to jog each morning with a local running group. The members are absorbed with planning both a club race and a crime: they have decided to help Rose, a member of the group, steal back the valuable enamel boxes that her delinquent husband took with him when he left to live with the hateful Lynda. Kate is given the job of coming up with a plan. I found the book entertaining, though the clues were a bit obvious.

In Oxford Exit, Kate is asked by ex-lover, now-friend Andrew to help figure out who is stealing books from the Oxford University libraries. This is a much more complex and assured narrative, with significant clues not so loudly broadcast. I particularly liked the exploration of the mind of the murderer in alternating chapters written from the murderer’s point of view.

This third book goes even further, with more subtle characters and clues. To my astonished pleasure, it boasts multiple narratives woven within the chapters that are perfectly clear even while being fully integrated, something that few writers are able to accomplish without making me crazy. There’s even a post-modernist wink at the reader about three-quarters of the way through. Kate is looking for something to spice up her latest novel about the sister of Dickens’s mistress, and learns that an Oxford tutor is engrossed in research that could be just what she needs: Dr. Olivia Blacket is transcribing newly discovered letters and diaries written by the sisters. Kate, fearful after her last two encounters with murder, feels pretty safe approaching Dr. Blacket, only to find herself immersed in another adventure.

Excellent. I enjoyed spending time with Kate, who is spunky and smart, but forthright about her failings. Most of all, though, I reveled in the unromantic descriptions of Oxford and the various colleges—no dreaming spires here—which brought back memories of my many visits to the town. I’ll be looking for more in the series. How much better can Stallwood get?

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