“Not dead yet? We must see about that.”
Dawn Meadowes is young, beautiful, and brilliant, having just published a best-selling novel. She’s also dead, fatally stabbed in her own garden. No one could be less suited to investigate the artists of Chelsea than the prissy, peevish Inspector Ronald Price, unless it’s his daydreaming sergeant, Frobisher. They soon discover that Dawn’s life is anything but an open book.
Long Shadows is a comic novel of life among artsy Londoners. The only thing is that it’s also meant to be a detective story, a fact that Joanna Cannan only occasionally concerns herself with. At times it seems that Dawn was murdered only to give the other characters something to talk about. I’ve given up expecting much of a mystery from this series—the first entry, Murder Included, has the most well-integrated crime plot, and it’s only gone downhill from there—but the vivid characters and detailed insights into society are always fascinating. Unfortunately, Long Shadows is lacking in this area. Cannan is at her best when she can really sink her teeth into a social milieu; however, she clearly doesn’t feel comfortable in bohemian Chelsea, which leaves some sharply drawn characters floundering against a sketchy backdrop.
Perhaps reflecting this discomfort, Alex Fairlie spends the night of the murder feeling out of place at a glittering literary cocktail party, uncomfortably aware of how much attention her husband Ivor is paying to Dawn Meadowes. The only kindred spirits Alex meets at the party are a trio of Victorian literary ladies who will end up providing the best and most vivid scenes of the book. Ivor is disgusted by his wife’s lack of social savvy in wasting her time with these relics of a bygone age.
They’re a menace. As a tot Lily was the pet of the Pre-Raphaelites—well, not quite perhaps, but certainly Mr. Ruskin stroked her golden curls. Dora wrote a poem and it happened to catch the eye of Quiller-Crouch in 1900. That fish-bag she carries—she swiped the canapes when she thinks no one’s looking and carries them home and lives on them for weeks. Elaine wrote daring novels about adultery in the days when it was something. Why don’t you find me some budding talent instead of getting involved with Victorians?
He means budding talent like Dawn, who is the toast of the publishing world after writing a sensational novel exposing the real-life scandals of a Victorian icon. When Dawn is found dead just a short time later, Price and Frobisher must determine whether she was killed because of her dramatic personal life, or because the research for her new book threatened to expose old secrets. “‘Lives of Great Men’ were supposed to ‘remind us we can make our own sublime,’ but nowadays we rout and rummage for the feet of clay,” and no one could rummage better than Dawn.
This may sound like an unrealistic motive for murder, but the Victorian era had only been over for about fifty years at this point. Several characters in Long Shadows were actually adults during the nineteenth century. Others have grandparents or even parents who could have been the targets of Dawn’s book. A great-great-grandparent’s scandal makes for a charming anecdote. A father or mother’s scandal, however, hits much closer to home.
Alex naturally assumes that Ivor is the prime suspect in Dawn’s murder, little realizing that she is rocketing up Price’s suspect list herself. Happily oblivious, Alex sets out to solve the crime, alongside Cockney artists’ model Rosemary Binns. On the surface, plump, outspoken Alex and enigmatic Rosemary could not seem more different. But both women prove to be bright, curious, and utterly fearless in pursuit of a killer—even as Alex fears that the murderer may turn out to be her own husband.
The relationship between Alex and Ivor is a strange one; it’s never quite clear whether this is a marriage worth saving or not. Alex certainly loves Ivor, even as she is driven to despair by his possible infidelity. “Snap out of it, she told herself as the knot in her throat climbed higher. You’re not the first girl it’s happened to. It’s a common thing. You can handle it. But can I? she thought miserably. What weapons have I got? I can’t make myself better looking or think up wisecracks, and it’s too late to cloak myself in mystery.” There are limits to how long she is willing to stand by her man, however, and murder definitely hits those limits.
Ivor is harder to read; unlike Alex, he does not wear his emotions on his sleeve. We are told that when they first met in the United States, he was attracted by her openness and lack of pretension. Once back in London, however, Alex strikes him as not only gauche and awkward, but inauthentic. It is people like Dawn, trailing around in caftans and sandals, who seem true to themselves by Ivor’s lights, because they conform to his social set’s preconceived notions of “authenticity.” Alex will never fit that mold.
Ironically, it is precisely Alex’s forthright American manner that draws Price’s attention. “The whole of the United States is riddled with crime, Sergeant. Riddled.” Just as the Chelsea backdrop is poorly defined, Price’s awfulness is not used to full advantage here. He’s simply too mean to everyone at all times, and too obviously wrong about everything. Price is most fun when his situation is a little more nuanced—receiving misery in addition to doling it out; this close to getting it right, but led astray by his own prejudices. Still, Price is at his best when he is railing passionately against some totally innocuous topic, and he has a few such moments in Long Shadows.
Price didn’t look at the river. He hated water; in large quantities it was dangerous to life; of all the elements it yielded the most unappetizing corpses; falling, it spotted your hair and suit, rotted the soles of your Strydeouts. An abstainer, though not a total one, he drank the stuff, but mixed it with health-giving fruit-juices. As for the spring, except that in the Lilliwarme underclothes which he would not cast till May was out he was much too hot, he had not noticed it. He had never cared for Nature and liked her less since her triumph over Science, which had made him the father of twins.
Frobisher, his long-suffering sergeant, is stuck following Price’s whims when he would rather be wooing the lovely Rosemary. Unlike his superior officer, he is highly susceptible to springtime, and a trip to the country to interview a witness plunges him into an existential crisis.
Frobisher felt a sudden distaste for the witch-hunt; against the green and gold and tender blue formed and dissolved a pageant of drab men in raincoats, their eyes turned gutterwards, sneaking through sleazy slums, under railway arches, in underground lavatories, nosing out the crushed carton, the fallen hair, the dirt from the fingernails, the grease-stain, the blood-stain, the refuse of the weak and the wicked. Only through the pages of fiction went the dashing detectives in their old school ties and suits from Savile Row, downing rye whisky, hopping into bed with their glamorous suspects; in real life it was tea in the canteen for you; under frowsty beds you crawled for hair-grips and cigarette-ends. But all the same, he told himself, draining the teapot, you had to remember that you’d chosen the job and for what a shining reason: to protect the innocent, to keep the peace of such green valleys as this, to drive be it one nail only into the props that shore up our tottering Jerusalem…
Long Shadows is a quirky comic mystery with many incidental delights, but the plot is too scattered to be really satisfying. There are far more detectives than suspects, most of them endearing but none of them very organized or effective. Strangely, the further the investigation gets from the actual victim, the more assured the narrative becomes, but the effect is to erase Dawn from her own murder. In fact, the murder itself becomes something of an afterthought. One can’t help feeling that Cannan is relieved to set it aside, eager to rush off to more congenial subjects, like rural villages and batty old ladies. The biggest twist of all is that the solution is unexpectedly excellent: solidly foreshadowed, with a tense final showdown. If the rest of the book had been at this level, Long Shadows could have been compelling all the way through, instead of only here and there.
Long Shadows is available as an ebook from Endeavour Media.