Reviewed by Wendy Lipke
Milk, two sugars and a dead body… A Spoonful of Murder is the first novel by primary school deputy head, J. M. Hall. He had previously written plays for theatre and radio across the UK. His full-time job, no doubt, gave him many models on whom to base his three retired female primary schoolteachers who star in this novel.
Thelma, Pat and Liz had lived, taught and now retired in the area used as the setting for this tale. They met weekly for coffee and a chat at their local garden centre cafe. It was here, one day, that another ex-colleague, Topsy Joy, came in with her daughter, KellyAnne. The trio were shocked to see how much Topsy’s health had deteriorated. On a follow-up visit, conversation, ‘like an old PC warming up… began to come to life as together they reached around and over and past the bits of Topsy’s brain that were no longer connecting’ (26).
Not long after these encounters, they heard that Topsy had died. There was much talk about a mix up with tablets but, when she had been talking to her past colleagues, she had been very aware of what she was taking and why. ‘That’s for my ticker, that’s my waterworks, and that’s because apparently I’m going doolally tap’ (24). There was also talk of murky call centres, lurking figures, financial misnomers, and there were the confused words which Topsy thought she’d heard, ‘It’d be better all round if she was dead’ (12).
The author displays a deep understanding of the female characters at this stage in their lives, especially those who had been in a position of authority and had the need to still feel useful and productive – transporting grandchildren, joining book clubs, gardening, volunteering. Based on their experiences over a lifetime, they had an uncanny sense of knowing when things did not seem right. The more they learned, the more they continued to feel that all, in relation to Topsy’s death, was not what it seemed.
The story covers forty chapters each of which follow the thoughts and actions of one of the intrepid sleuths. Each chapter has its own one-sentence title such as ‘There is sad news, an unexpected visit and a disquieting disclosure’ (Chapter seven) and ‘A reckoning takes place in Willow Base and anger is felt at various injustices’ (Chapter twenty-seven), but it is the sentence at the beginning of Chapter forty which best sums up what this book is about – ‘A story of ordinary evil is recounted by three people’ (312).
Warm and witty throughout, A Spoonful of Murder is a gently paced mystery with a cast of interesting amateur sleuths. The story highlights the lives of people in retirement. At Topsy’s funeral, the older people are described as using the occasion as a time to catch up, to reminisce, with the unspoken satisfaction of having outlived the deceased, while they assessed the décor of the church. I thought the name of the Keep Fit Class most appropriate – Mums, Bums and Tums. In the process of unravelling the truth, many memories of the past lives of the characters are revealed as well as much about the area in which they live. Sometimes the multiple characters became a little confusing and often I felt there was too much detail provided.
This author’s writing contained some elements not common in other books. Very much written in a conversational style the writing contained brackets with explanations for the reader. ‘Apparently (after a lot of to-ing and fro-ing) the case was going to prosecution’ and ‘Over plastic cups of tea (not such a cause for cheer), she’d heard from Thelma the latest on KellyAnne (322). Also, I was a little surprised at the prolific use of the word ‘was’ creating compound verbs e.g. ‘was sat’ (298).
I found this to be an interesting read, one which would resonate well with the more mature female reader but could also be found quite humorous by the younger reader. It put me in mind of Joanna Nells who often set her stories in retirement villages.
A Spoonful of Murder
by J.M. Hall
Avon a division of HarperCollins Publisher