Enter Pale Death: A Joe Sandilands Investigation
Those who enjoy unapologetically traditional British mysteries would do well to discover Barbara Cleverly’s Joe Sandilands mysteries. The series has evolved progressively since its inception, slowly but surely. The 12th and latest installment, ENTER PALE DEATH, is set in England in 1933, a point in time when the War to End All Wars was but a not-too-distant nightmare and the uneasy political roilings taking place in Germany were all too easy and distant to ignore. Sandilands is a hero of the First World War and a post-war detective with Scotland Yard as the book begins. He is a likable character without being cloying, smart without being obnoxious about it or wearing his intelligence on his sleeve. He is the type of individual you would want watching your back, while at the same time, you would follow him into hell. In other words, he is a rare and desirable breed.
"Cleverly moves things along at a leisurely pace, but it’s all to give readers time to note the surroundings, which, like the mystery upon which the book is built, are first-rate. Even if you don’t reflexively reach for historical mysteries, you should give ENTER PALE DEATH a shot."
ENTER PALE DEATH begins with the somewhat grisly death of Lady Lavinia Truelove, which occurs on her country estate. Her demise involves her ill-advised efforts to approach a wild-spirited stallion. The incident is quickly classified as a death by misadventure. Indeed, the immediate circumstances would seem to indicate that it is just so. The reader, though, is privy to a few elements and some seemingly innocuous incidents that nonetheless lead up to the event in question and scare up some ambiguity. Sandilands suspects a whitewash and quietly begins an investigation of his own, utilizing the talents and abilities of the officially retired but still active Lily Wentworth, whose husband, possibly thanks to Sandilands, is fortuitously on an out-of-town assignment.
Complications abound, not the least of which involve Sir James Truelove, Lady Lavinia’s widower and, interestingly enough, the academic patron of Dorcas Joliffe, whom Sandilands hopes to marry at some point. Truelove may have his own designs on Dorcas, and Sandilands has to tread lightly around him, not only because of Truelove’s influence over Dorcas’ academic career but also due to the possibility that Truelove may be appointed to head up Sandilands’ department.
Sandilands is exposed to Truelove’s manipulations almost before his investigation commences, and things get worse as matters proceed and Sandilands uncovers a number of secrets concerning the Upstairs, if you will, of some of England’s most prominent and powerful families. As he moves forward with the investigation, Sandilands finds himself confronted with the most troubling problem of all when the revelation of the truth behind Lady Truelove’s death may result in the end of his relationship with Dorcas.
While there is an intriguing mystery at the heart of ENTER PALE DEATH --- one that is set up within the first few pages --- one stays for the social intrigue and the historical setting, which Cleverly has nailed to the last nuance. This is an England that is several decades and a world away from the present, where an emotional tinderbox can be set off with a glance and empires rise and fall on the wrong word. Cleverly moves things along at a leisurely pace, but it’s all to give readers time to note the surroundings, which, like the mystery upon which the book is built, are first-rate. Even if you don’t reflexively reach for historical mysteries, you should give ENTER PALE DEATH a shot.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on December 19, 2014