"The Cold Light of Mourning" by Elizabeth J. Duncan
Minotaur, 277 pp., $24.95
Reviewed by David Marshall James
It could be called "A Wedding and Two Funerals," but that's not quite right, and people who supply spoilers to mystery novels are like unto motorists who intentionally drive through mud puddles, the better to sully pedestrians' clothing.
A thumbnail sketch of "The Cold Light of Mourning"-- featuring a Nova Scotian who has settled in a town in North Wales, opened a manicurist's salon, and who paints plein-air watercolor landscapes on the side-- may cause the casual reader of dust-jacket blurbs and condensed reviews to mutter, "Huh?"
However, Toronto author Elizabeth J. Duncan has composed a thoroughly organic mystery, one that springs-- like a lamb in a rolling Welsh meadow, no less-- effortlessly from the circumstances at hand: the (natural) death of a retired schoolteacher, Emma Teasdale, and the marriage of Emyr Gruffydd (son of a wealthy landowner) to a London PR maven, Meg Wynne Thompson, who has made herself over (name included) from working-class roots in Durham, England.
The aforementioned transplant from Nova Scotia, Penny Brannigan, has settled in Llanellen, Wales, upon the heels of a postgraduate tour abroad, mostly to take in the art museums of Paris. A foster child, she has no strong family ties pulling her back, so she has made Llanellen her home for the past 25 years.
Never married, she was once engaged to a police officer who drowned while saving a young boy from a river. Since then, she has structured a rather sedate life, centered around her salon, with a flat above it. Her free time is mostly spent painting the breathtaking scenery that surrounds the town, and her artwork sells well among the tourists.
Miss Teasdale's passing opens a deep emotional chasm in Penny's carefully constructed life, the older woman being her closest friend and something of a mother figure. Her funeral is to transpire the Monday following the Saturday nuptials. Penny is set to do nails for the two bridesmaids, as well as the bride. This seemingly routine bit of business eventually stands her life on end.
The author does a splendid job of setting her stage-- of describing the town and its adjoining, bucolic scenery-- and of allowing her story to unfold gracefully, instead of superimposing it upon a canvas where it would seem forced or unlikely.
Moreover, her characters prove realistic and knowable: Penny (no wonder she dropped her bags in Llanellen); the local rector, Thomas Evans, and his by-your-side wife, Bronwyn; the Gruffydds' longtime housekeeper, Gwennie, who dotes on a Lab named Trixxi; Penny's new friend, recent London divorcee and harpist Victoria Hopkirk; and everyone's favorite busybody, retired postmistress Evelyn Lloyd (small wonder that her daughter, Morwyn, is a newspaper reporter).
Two likable detectives also enter the scene: Chief Detective Inspector Gareth Davies, and his detective sergeant, Bethan Morgan.
What a treat this debut novel is-- simple yet scrumptious-- like Penny's favorite tea: scones with jam and clotted cream. Have "a cuppa" and savor.
* * *