Life for Henrietta Jenkins was a quiet, well-ordered affair – a home with her widowed mother and degree studies at university. But her life changed dramatically when, just before her 21st birthday, her mother’s body was found in a quiet road, apparently the victim of a hit-and-run driver. For not only did the simple case turn into a murder hunt, but the post mortem also revealed that Grace Jenkins had never had any children. In which case, who was Henrietta?
I whizzed through this second Inspector Sloan book in a single car journey and was so immersed in it that I didn’t mind being in an almost immobile queue of traffic for large parts of the trip. ‘Henrietta Who?’ has the same police personnel as ‘The Religious Body’ and it depends upon a cunning trap at the end to get the villain but otherwise it has little in common in either content or tone.
I was propelled through the book partly by the novelty of the idea: that a violent death reveals that Henrietta, a young woman approaching her twenty-first birthday, is not who she has been raised to believe she was. The subsequent investigation is as much about finding out who Henrietta is and why she was given a different identity as it is about investigating the violent death.
The pieces of the puzzle are revealed one at a time and with great dexterity. I enjoyed the view that they gave me of rural England in 1968, when World War II was a childhood memory for the youngest character, while the oldest one served in the Boer War, and when ‘murder by motor vehicle’ was rare enough to feel novel.
I can see that Catherine Aird is going to become a go-to author for comfort reads. Her ideas are original. Her storytelling has a light touch that keeps the plot moving without making it feel forced. Her humour, which plays upon the many ways in which we misunderstand each other, is mostly kind. Her close observation of people and places grounds her stories, making them easy to relax in.
She has also contrived a clever way to prevent the exposition needed to solve a puzzle from becoming tedious by providing Inspector Sloan with two foils to discuss the case with: his not-stupid but sometimes slow to see inferences and consequences young DC, who needs coaching and his micro-managing, usually impatient boss who is always looking for the quick solution, even when the solutions contradict one another. It seems to me that when Sloan is talking to either of these two, he’s the voice of the author tickling the reader to work things out for themselves. Aird softens the edge of this kind tickling by imbuing both relationships with an attitude of long-suffering humour from Sloan.
Aird’s novels are bite-size things, almost novellas by modern standards, so, to me, they’re like watching an episode of a clever police series where the detective solves a new mystery in a new setting every week.
I’m expecting to consume of alot of them over the coming months.