How did it get to be Monday again so fast? However it happened, Monday means murder and we received Shake Hands or Die by Michael Northey from the publisher via Netgalley for review. Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:
“Father John was friendly during the services. He had no problem in greeting people during the Peace, where people wander about mid-service saying hello, peace, waving, some greeting others with a chaste hug, in general recognition of being one big family. He had a nice smile. Only he never stood at the church door after service to shake hands or say goodbye…”
Wacky new vicar Father John aims to modernise St Martha’s church in the delightful city of Hillford. People love his fun gimmicks but cannot understand why he will not ever shake hands at the end of service. Even the charming archdeacon, Babs, cannot get him to change his mind. Until one day, the reason becomes crystal clear.
Ambitious journalist Fred Vestal, on loan from a London tabloid, is trying to shake up the sleepy local paper. He turns up to a service at St Martha’s and sees an uninhibited children’s play. After getting a sniff of a story, he interviews the vicar and writes a vicious article, labelling Father John as a public menace.
When they next meet, Father John refuses to shake hands with Fred. Soon afterwards a body is found in a pile of compost in the churchyard. The little cathedral city of Hillford, where even the police seem off-beat, looks for an answer…
John is a vicar with some madcap methods that seem to be bringing the punters back to the Church. Fred is a journalist with the aim of making a name for himself, no matter how many reputations he destroys in search of the truth. When Fred is found dead outside John’s church, for the police all roads seem to lead to Rome. (Well, C of E).
The Usual Suspects:
For much of the book, there are only two suspects: John the vicar and a gang of thugs who were last seen carrying Fred off on their shoulders, ostensibly in hero worship. Really though, the police only ever suspect John, given the fact that he has motive and, rather stupidly in our opinion, buggered off immediately after the murder happened.
The Hunt for the Murderer/s:
Starts off farcically, takes a slide through bizarre Shakespearean monologue and finishes without the police doing much at all.
Two poison bottles for the kind of quirky comedy one might find in “Carry on, Vicar”.
This turned out to be wholly and utterly the kind of cosy mystery from which I normally steer well clear.
You know the ones.
There’s a veritable tsunami of ones set in America, with themes of knitting, baking or painting and suitably pun-laden titles such as Grand Hoummus-cide and Brushed Off and Hooked on Murder. In these mysteries, the focus tends more toward the quirkiness of the setting/characters/situation and less toward an actual reasonable murder mystery with a logical and intriguing solution.
So it was with Shake Hands or Die. Strangely though, the irritating quirkiness didn’t really start to show itself until about a third of the way through, so I was already drawn into the story before I twigged to exactly the kind of quicksand of ridiculum into which I had unwittingly stepped. The first third of the story introduces John and his wacky, lively methods that have swelled the congregation of his parish church, as well as his idiosyncratic insistence on not shaking hands after the service. By a third of the way through, the reader is given the necessary back story as to why shaking hands is such a stressor for John, and the story then moves on to introduce soon-to-be-dead Fred, the journalist with an axe to grind. The second third of the book starts to deal with the relationship between John and Fred, features the murder of the aforementioned soon-to-be-dead Fred and then quickly descends into absolute silliness from which an ensemble cast of absolute loonies takes the stage.
We have the gang of thugs who are actually university educated professionals in disguise who spend their time calling each other canine-inspired names and being smugly sarcastic to those less educated than themselves. There’s Karen, the fiancee of dead Fred, who gets pages and pages of soliloquy on the spot of her lover’s demise, replete with phrases like, “Oh Fred, my Fred, my darling, my only love, Fred!”
I kid you not.
There’s also a vigilante gang of old people (including the indespensible retired army Major character) who attempt to do some investigating of their own. Then there’s the police – an odd couple who are having an affair, of which much is made, as well as having difficulty agreeing on how to go about investigating the crime, of which little is made. One of the policeman is also brother to a local councilman and these two speak in the most unlikely contrived way to each other that it had me scratching my head throughout.
The ending and reveal eventually come with a whimper rather than a bang, and by this stage I could not fathom what it was that I had just read. Either this cosy mystery thing has blown out toward whimsy beyond all proportions, or the editor of this one read the first third, decided, “Yep, that should be fine”, and subsequently didn’t bother casting an eye over the rest.
I’d recommend this is you like murder mysteries that make you feel as if you’ve tripped and stumbled into the twilight zone of contrived English countryside villages. Otherwise, it’s probably best to move right along.
Until next time,