RogerBW's Blog

Dying to Write, Judith Cutler 26 December 2016

1996 mystery; second of Cutler's novels of Sophie Rivers, teacher in a sixth-form college in Birmingham and part-time chorister. Sophie goes on a residential writing course; one of her fellow students dies, and a tutor goes missing.

The main plot is pretty straightforward this time, and I was never in real doubt as to the identity of the primary villain; but motivation is another matter, and why things are happening is the major mystery. What is the point of killing the ghastly sexpot? Why kidnap someone, go to some trouble to keep them alive, but not send any sort of ransom demand; how is this supposed to work? And what are all these Japanese "tourists" doing, showing up at an old country house in the middle of nowhere?

There's a well-drawn cast of secondary characters, mostly Sophie's fellow students, some with actual literary competence, others definitely without; if this were a Peter Lovesey or Simon Brett book they would all be hopeless figures of fun, but they are drawn rather more subtly with mixtures of positive and negative traits. One feels that for the most part they are people rather than cardboard figures for the author to throw tomatoes at, though "the sci-fi freak" never gets beyond that description.

But the main focus is on Sophie herself, still reeling from the death of her good friend George a few months earlier, and taking the course because she's trying to put together a eulogy for him. All right, she does insert herself into the investigation rather more than would be sensible, but she does have reasons for most of her decisions; better, she's aware that they're flimsy reasons, but that this is the sort of thing she does.

There's less of the multi-ethnic Birmingham background that was so effective in the first book, since most of the action takes place in and around the country house. On the other hand there is a pet rat who becomes the object of Sophie's affections as well as helping part of the plot to move forward. (Rattus ex machina?)

I wasn't entirely convinced by the villain's motivations, but the technical bits hold together, and the non-mystery elements are really rather good.

Cutler certainly isn't one of the greats of mystery fiction, but this is an enjoyable and competently-written book. Followed by Dying on Principle.

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