I started reading and went back in time.
When I started reading the first book of J. New’s Yellow Cottage series, the years slid back for me. But it wasn’t to the mid-1930s setting of the Yellow Cottage series, which TV Tropes calls Genteel Interbellum Setting—that vaguely between-World-Wars era of women in furs and cocktail dresses, men in dinner jackets, country houses and estates, and sophisticated banter. No, I was once again a 10-year-old, home from school with strep throat and sequestered in my parents’ bedroom to keep my germ-ridden self away from my siblings.
[Since my Irish-Catholic mother had already produced six of those siblings—with another on the way—that meant she stashed me in her room with the side-by-side twin beds in approved fifties ain’t-no-sex-goin-on-here-nohow culture. As their child-production count eventually topped out at ten, I never really quite got the point of those twin beds. Once, when I asked her, my mother said I should just be glad I didn’t have twice as many siblings. I said if that was the case, she should have thought about moving that other twin bed to a different room. In another state…]
But I digress. The point (of course I have one—I’m a professional writer. Don’t try this at home…) is that her bed had a bookshelf headboard which held her latest mystery books, currently all by Agatha Christie. So I read the (still socially-inappropriately titled) Ten Little Indians. Huh. Didn’t see that ending coming. I picked up another one, starring an unlikely sleuth—a little old lady named Miss Marple, who investigates When a Murder is Announced. And that was it. My little California-based soul was hooked: on witty cozy mysteries with literate British amateur sleuths, on fabulous British settings, on fantastic BBC productions, and most definitely on Dame Agatha.
For me, Agatha Christie’s books succeed on two levels. Level One is first and foremost the characters. Each of them, but especially the detective, is fully rounded and fleshed out with charming idiosyncrasies or ominous foibles.
Level Two of Agatha Christie’s success is all about that surprise ending. Christie herself caught readers with the twist at the end by systematically breaking almost every rule of detective stories. There’s a story—perhaps apocryphal—that Dame Agatha was almost kicked out of the Detection Club for breaking their rules of detective fiction, and only saved by the single dissenting vote of then-president Dorothy L Sayers. (Yep, there was such a club and they actually did write down rules for detective fiction.) And it’s pretty indisputable that Agatha Christie—who served as its president from 1957-1976—also regularly broke most of those detective story rules. Of course readers are attracted to different types of mystery and detective stories. But one thing most agree is that they enjoy looking at the clues and trying to figure things out with—or before!—the sleuth. That’s why “You’re probably wondering why I’ve asked you all here” is a trope that’s kept working so well for so long.
As I pointed out in my review of her first two Yellow Cottage books, author J. New’s Yellow Cottage series succeeds on both these levels. She pays tribute to the legacy of Agatha Christie and other early cozy mystery writers, but also introduces elements that make the result uniquely her own. So I was delighted to received the next book in the series for my review below—in which, I confess, I shamelessly repeat a few elements from my earlier reviews.
[Confession: somehow I committed my own clerical error in earlier reviews by calling our heroine “Bella” instead of her actual name “Ella”. My red-faced but sincere apologies.]
When the crime scene is pure coincidence and there’s no evidence, how do you prove it was murder?
Ella Bridges faces her most challenging investigation so far when the vicar dies suddenly at the May Day Fete. But with evidence scarce and her personal life unravelling in ways she could never have imagined, she misses vital clues in the investigation.
Working alongside Sergeant Baxter of Scotland Yard, will Ella manage to unearth the clues needed to catch the killer before another life is lost? Or will personal shock cloud her mind and result in another tragedy?
‘A Clerical Error’ is set in 1930’s England, and is the third of The Yellow Cottage Vintage Mystery series.
‘Miss Marple meets The Ghost Whisperer’ – Perfect For Fans of Golden Age Murder Mysteries, Cozy Mysteries, Clean Reads and British Amateur Sleuths
My Review: 4 stars out of 5 for A Clerical Error by J. New
Protagonist Isobella (Ella) Bridges is a young widow whose husband died in somewhat mysterious circumstances. Two years after his death, she returns to the little village where her family spent happy holidays and purchases the Yellow Cottage after visiting with its owner—who, Ella later discovers, had already been dead for seven months when they spoke. Her cottage predecessor leaves the young widow several mysteries to solve, including a ghost cat. Ella is a perfect example of her class—posh, casually prejudiced, and so supremely assured of her place in the world that she is perfectly willing to ignore fashion and custom when it suits her while unconsciously adhering to their dictates in almost every aspect of her life.
Having grown up in and around old houses, Ella accepts the ghosts with the same aplomb as she greets her quirky new neighbors. In the first book of the series, most of the action centers around London, so we also meet Ella’s brother Jerry and his wife Ginny, as well as Ginny’s “Uncle” Albert, Scotland Yard’s Police Commissioner. In the second book, we get to know more of her neighbors in the quintessentially English village setting.
Wikipedia defines a cozy mystery as “…a subgenre of crime fiction in which sex and violence are downplayed or treated humorously, and the crime and detection take place in a small, socially intimate community.” True to the definition, sex, profanity, and violence are “behind the door” and only gently referenced. Sleuth Ella is an amateur who gathers a posse of essential helpers—in this case the Police Commissioner, his chief medical examiner, and her own well-connected family.
One of the challenges with any ongoing series is to move the backstory forward by adding little unresolved threads, while still solving each book’s central mystery arc. For example, in A Clerical Error, the role of Mrs. Shaw, Ella’s somewhat mysterious housekeeper, is finally explained. But…
[spoiler-ish alert! If you haven’t read the first two books, you may want to skip the next paragraph…] At the end of Book 2, Ella is stunned to receive a call from John, the husband she believed was dead. In A Clerical Error, she is still, naturally, more than a bit upset about this. Without revealing too much, I have to admit I found this development and its resolution unsatisfying. While it did set up Ella’s distrust with authorities, also hinting at the global forces already moving to end the interlude between two World Wars, it was just so… off-screen, leaving me with a strong sense of “what was that about?” It wasn’t until Ella was deeply involved with the new ghosts she meets in A Clerical Error that I was able to step back and realize (or at least hope!) that John’s phone call is the setup to another ghost’s appearance.
Ella’s confusion and absorption with the shocking news about her “dead” husband makes it difficult for her to focus fully on the mysterious death of the local vicar. In her role as a consultant to Scotland Yard, she finds herself investigating the suspicious circumstances, forced to consider which of her new friends and neighbors might be the murderer in their midst.
The element that brings this series to a different level (at least for me) is that Ella sees ghosts, and even talks to them. Her cat, Phantom, is usually a ghost. Except (he’s a cat after all) when he’s not. Mixing the paranormal elements with the main mystery, and adding dessert toppings of secondary mysteries, puzzles, and mysteriously puzzling ghosts, keeps the story lively and makes the reader look forward to learning more about the characters (both living and dead). Still, even with the assistance of the occasional ghost, author J. New plays fair with her readers most of the time. If she delays in explaining a critical clue, I could usually forgive her if—as with the earlier books of the series—it sets up that most essential of cozy mystery tropes, the detective addressing the gathered suspects. Unfortunately, in this case the resolution and final confrontation with the murderer happens off-stage, reported third-hand and unwitnessed by Ella (or the reader).
With the minor exception of the third-person resolution, I still found that its setting and characters make A Clerical Error—as I said in my reviews of the earlier books—an enchanting example of a cozy mystery, a paranormal detective story, and a completely entertaining series in a historical setting. I am delighted to recommend A Clerical Error, and look forward to more adventures with Ella and her family.
**I received this book from the publisher or author to expedite an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.**
Book Title: A Clerical Error
Author: J. New
Genre: Cozy Paranormal Mystery
Publisher:Phantom Press (January 8, 2018)
Length: 204 pages