RogerBW's Blog

Dying Fall, Judith Cutler 16 November 2016

1995 mystery; first of Cutler's novels of Sophie Rivers, a teacher in a sixth-form college in Birmingham. Finding one of her students stabbed to death in the lift is bad enough; when her best friend dies in a way that seems plausibly accidental except to people who knew him well, Sophie knows she'll have to look into the situation herself.

Sophie is also a part-time choral singer, and it seems at first she's involved in two distinct cases: the student was involved with some dodgy dealings, and nobody seems to have had a motive to kill her old friend George. She looks into both matters, while trying also to juggle her professional lives and a variety of stunning men, in particular the American guest conductor who seems to have taken a sudden shine to her.

This book is set in 1995, when a mobile phone is still a showy thing to carry about, the Internet is just a vicious rumour, and possession of a modem is a sign of deep technical wizardry. But it's also set in Birmingham, and Sophie's college life crosses multiple ethnic groups, each with their own concerns. What's particularly effective is that this isn't just about the white people interacting with the Sikhs, the white people interacting with the Muslims, etc.; it's also about how the Muslims feel about the Sikhs, and so on in combination.

On the orchestral side, everyone is clearly white, but Cutler doesn't try to make a Point out of it: that's just the way things are in that particular world at that time, and the reader can draw his own conclusions about how sensible that is by contrast with the college side. (Possibly some of the non-white people are a bit too good, but at least we have some non-white bad guys too.)

The mystery should present no challenge to the experienced reader, and Sophie is perhaps less suspicious than she should be, but it all comes out in the end. It's perhaps a little flabby in places, but it's carried by the characters: Sophie herself is sympathetic in a way that her near-contemporary Jordan Lacey (in Stella Whitelaw's books) often doesn't manage. She's unashamed about sexual desire, but not desperate or stupid in indulging it. And she does things other than merely detect. The rest of the cast suggest that there's more to be written about them too, and they're all people who seem real enough that one might go out for a drink with them.

Followed by Dying to Write.

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  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 11:59pm on 16 November 2016

    I can date 1995 very well in my memory, I changed jobs from SJ Research to NET-TEL that year. I'd been on the Internet to varying extents since 1984 depending on what access each job had, joining NET-TEL was great as they had a leased line and full email, newsgroup server and pretty much everything. This was where I first used a web browser, in 1995. And at both the company I was leaving and the one I was joining I was the exception in that I didn't have a mobile phone and pretty much everyone else did. My brother also had one and he has nothing to do with computers. So I don't recognise the 1995 the book describes.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 12:24am on 17 November 2016

    Sure, and my experiences were similar – but Sophie isn't in the slightest a techie. If she were at a university, sure, JANet was very much up and running, but I don't think it had really penetrated to sixth-form colleges and the like.

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