RogerBW's Blog

The Grub-and-Stakers House a Haunt, Charlotte MacLeod 05 November 2019

1993, cosy American detective fiction; fifth and last of MacLeod's novels (as "Alisa Craig") of Dittany Henbit and the Lobelia Falls Grub-and-Stakers Gardening & Roving Club. The ghost of a nineteenth-century mule-skinner turns up in town, and wants his bones found and properly buried… but doesn't much mind what happens to the chest of gold that should be near them.

MacLeod hasn't minded going outside strict reality before, but this time takes a great leap away, offering not only a ghost who's happy to converse with (and be seen by) everyone, but also three separate dowsers, one of whom has never previously thought of trying it, and all of them entirely reliable on the first try. Well, I read much stranger stuff, but it's a bit unexpected to see it in a mystery story.

Punctuality had never been Mike's obsession; Zilla had often told him he'd be late for his own funeral. In a way, her prediction had come true. Mike's body hadn't come ashore till more than a week after he'd been drowned, although his would-be rescuers had salvaged the kayak right away. They never did find the paddle; it was thought to have been claimed as salvage by a family of rather tough and rowdy beavers who lived downstream.

It works better than the last book, though; there is a mystery here (if not very much of one, with nothing in the way of misdirection), with fell doings in high places, a little dab of murder, and a buried stash of banknotes distinctly more recent than the mule-skinner's gold. The tone is more consistently comic, and both Dittany and Osbert have things to do, avoiding one of MacLeod's recurrent failure modes with her sleuthing couples.

The reigning queen of roguish Regency romance heaved a mighty sigh. "Ah, welladay! Why did I have to be cursed with fathomless pools of inscrutability instead of plain old eyeballs like everybody else?"

All right, MacLeod's writing (after the first couple of books) has never really risen above the level of enjoyable fluff, but while some of the recent volumes have been of variable quality this one at least sticks to its guns and does enjoyable fluff competently. There's a sense here, at last, of an author confident in her craft simply telling a funny story, without overplaying it or stretching the jokes too far.

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