‘Behind Closed Doors’ – Beatrice Stubbs #1 – by JJ Marsh

‘Behind Closed Doors’ is the first book in the Beatrice Stubbs European crime series, which currently stands at twelve books. If I assess this book the way I would a pilot for a TV series, then I’d rate it as very successful. The book was entertaining, the people were interesting, the locations were pretty, the plot was twisty and I’m intrigued by Beatrice Stubbs. I’d cheerfully sign up to watch the rest of the series. This is just as well, as I bought the first three books in an omnibus edition.

The premise of the book is that Beatrice Stubbs, a Detective Inspector at Scotland Yard, is assigned to lead an international team drawn from Interpol, Europol and the Swiss Police, to establish whether or not the apparent suicide of a number of unpopular prominent businessmen, spread out over several years and in multiple countries, are linked and if so, were they really suicides. This will be Beatrice’s first high-profile case since an (initially unspecified) incident a year earlier. Her team will be hosted by the Swiss Police in Zurich. We know from early on that the suicides were really murders. As the book progresses, we continually flip from the activities of the investigation team to witnessing a murder ingeniously being made to look like a suicide.

The plot was clever enough to keep me guessing but, despite some of the murders being fairly gruesome, there was very little tension in the book until the final few chapters. I found I rather liked that. I wasn’t being driven through a thriller at breakneck speed, I was being given time to observe and speculate and enjoy the people and the scenery.

What I liked most was how well JJ Marsh describes what it’s like when you bring experts from different countries together and try to form them into a team to achieve a task. I spent a lot of my career doing that and I think JJ Marsh captures all the little problems that arise from clashing cultural expectations and competing egos. She also does a credible job of showing how to get past these difficulties. I thought that JJ Marsh did an equally good job in capturing the feel of the locations in the book, especially Zurich, which is a city I know well.

I liked the humour in the book, much of which was based on how the members of the team learn to get on with one another and deal with cultural and personal differences. Here’s an example. Beatrice has gone with Herr Kälin, the most senior Swiss officer on the team, to a polo match (the kind of thing only the very wealthy attend) to interview a suspect. Herr Kälin is Swiss-German, senior and habitually quite formal (by English standards) in his interactions. While waiting for the suspect, Herr Kälin suggests that they get a drink at one of the refreshment tables. When she tastes the drink, Beatrice is surprised…

“Herr Kälin, this is champagne.”
“Correct, Frau Stubbs. Let us toast your skills of observation.”
“We are on duty, you know. I prefer to keep a clear head when trying to needle someone. For an interview, I mean. I hardly think alcohol is appropriate.”
“The police line is, ‘Ein Glas ist OK’, so I plan to stick to that. And it is a quality brand, don’t you think?”
Beatrice took another sip. It was rather good.
“And it is polite in Swiss society, as in most civilised countries in the world, to toast one another before drinking. Cheers, Frau Stubbs.”
“Cheers, Herr Kälin. Thank you for the tip. Here’s one for you. In Britain, we tend not to advise other people on how to behave.”
“True. You give no advice and then despise foreigners for not knowing the rules. It is a mystery to me why the British have no word for Schadenfreude.”

I enjoyed the humour. It’s the kind of exchange I’m very familiar with and it’s typical of the ways in which JJ Marsh develops the relationships between her characters.

One of the things that differentiates this series is that Beatrice Stubbs is managing her bipolar disorder. This gives her a very particular way of managing herself and shapes the way she works with her team. It seemed to me that the structure of the narrative echoed Beatrice’s bipolarity. The descriptions of the murders are cold, clinical and disturbing. The descriptions of the investigation are filled with people trying to show empathy for each other and to collaborate in a friendly and effective way. In my head, I was imagining that the TV version of this would use a cold colour palette and static cameras for the murders and a warm colour palette and handheld cameras for most of the investigation.

I listened to the audiobook version of ‘Behind Closed Doors’. I was impressed by how well the narrator, Jill Prewett, captured the accents from the different nationalities and gave each member of the team a voice I could instantly recognise so I checked her bio. It turns out that Jill Prewett writes under the name JJ Marsh, so this is one of those examples of an author who does a great job of narrating their own work. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.

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