My thanks to Bookouture and NetGalley for a review copy of this book.
Murder at the Priory Hotel is the fourth entry in the Flora Steele series of mysteries by Merryn Allingham set in 1950s England, and one of the few series I’ve kept up with from the start. Flora is a young woman in her twenties who lives in the small village of Abbeymead in Sussex and runs a book shop, the All’s Well, left to her by her aunt who had brought her up. In the events of the first book, a reclusive author of mysteries, Jack Carrington, had found a body in the shop when he arrived to collect his order as his errand boy was sick. This was a start of a ‘partnership’ between Flora and Jack who have since teamed up to solve other mysteries. Both have suffered heartbreak in the past, and so even while interested in each other, they have so far only remained friends.
While Flora and Jack’s last outing had taken them to Cornwall, where Jack was doing research for his novel, in this one they are back in Abbeymead and the scene of their first mystery. The Priory, formerly the village manor, had been sold and converted into a hotel in Murder in the Bookshop, after the events of which it had had to be shut down. Now, it has been purchased by Flora’s friend Sally (who helped run the bookshop when Flora was away in Cornwall), with a partner, Dominic Lister, whom Sally’s aunt (also Flora’s friend), and cook at the Priory, Alice doesn’t trust. The Priory is being prepared for a grand reopening; a marquee has been set up, a magnificent tea almost ready, and for entertainment, somewhat incongruent to local tastes, a rock and roll band, Tutti Frutti has agreed to play. Guests have assembled and the band is playing, as its lead singer, Beverly Russo, glamorously dressed, makes her way to the stage. But as she picks up the mic and opens her mouth to begin her song, she falls to the ground—dead!
The police are called and the body sent for medical examination. Flora believes that the death is natural for she knew that Beverly suffered heart trouble, but it turns out that this wasn’t the case and Beverly was in fact electrocuted. Sally, all of whose life savings are at stake in the hotel asks for help, but this time in a role reversal, it is Jack who is keen to help while Flora feels that since the police are on the case this time (unlike previously when they seemed to write murders off without looking into them), there is no need for them to get involved. But of course, the police don’t move at the pace expected and are also distracted by other matters, and Flora and Jack are eventually drawn in. There are numerous suspects for, while she had a beautiful voice, Beverly was constantly playing up to one or the other members of the band, stirring up trouble with the others. Nearly all of them bore her a grudge, and it wasn’t the band alone for she managed to make trouble elsewhere too. Who was it that killed Beverly? Do Flora and Jack find out and save Sally’s business?
What I enjoy about this series of stories are that they are light-hearted and gentle mysteries with not too much blood and gore (may be a little), and keep the reader engaged. We also have fairly likeable main characters in Flora and Jack with a continuing storyline with developments in their lives (Flora with running her bookshop, and Jack struggling with writer’s block [wondering about a return to his former career as a journalist or even opening a detective agency], and a ‘romance’ thread), glimpses of country life, as well as side characters like Kate who runs a small café, the Nook, in the village, Alice, and Jack’s errand boy, Charlie Teague whom we keep up with as well.
This was the case with Murder at the Priory Hotel, too. We have an interesting mystery, with quite the list of suspects, both those who seem directly linked to Beverly as well as others who seem to have little connection but act suspiciously all the same. All of them have strong motives and one wonders which of them it could have been who did the actual deed. There are plenty of clues that Flora and Jack uncover, together and separately, and the one that I thought was relevant and worked out an explanation around didn’t turn out to be the right one after all, so I rather enjoyed the denouement.
In this one, as I mentioned, there is a bit of a reversal in roles initially with Jack more interested in solving the mystery, while Flora wants to concentrate on her bookshop since Sally made a rather good job of it when Flora was in Cornwall, and she wants to do the same. But soon, she gets involved and begins to be her usual self, browbeating Jack to take advantage of his police connections to investigate clues.
In the book, we also get a chance to travel with Jack to Portsmouth and Brighton, and while not a ‘proper’ tour of these places (as we got of Cornwall in the previous book), it was interesting learning about some of Brighton’s buildings and get a sense of Portsmouth as well. While in the previous books, I felt we didn’t get as strong or good a sense of time as we do of place, in this one, I thought the author has given us some feel of the period, with references to popular culture and social mores (for instance, Flora’s reluctance to wear jeans, etc.). I also enjoyed the look into village life that we get in the book, from Flora and Jack ‘competing’ over their gardens to village events like the Saturday market to raise funds for the church, and of course how fast ‘news’ spreads in a small place.
The ‘romance’ thread also takes a step forward in this one, with Flora and Jack acknowledging their interest to themselves, and then a development forward at the end, the consequences of which we will have to wait till the next book to see.
An enjoyable read overall, and I’m interested to see where their next adventure takes them!