"And I am a chocoholic."
Maybe Elsie Thirkettle isn't headed for some strange 12 Step Program for truffle addiction, but her constant craving for chocolate certainly gets her into a sticky mess in the second of L.C. Tyler's farcical detective novels Ten Little Herrings. She steals a box of chocolates (evidence from a crime scene) and devours the contents nearly poisoning herself. She breaks out of a hotel under police sequester so that she can get her daily fix. But her prized box of Apollinaire chocolates is confiscated when she makes her crash landing re-entry in a scene right out of a Blake Edwards movie. Yes, chocolate is definitely her undoing. But I'm getting way ahead of myself.
Elsie meets up with her client, mystery writer Ethelred Tressider, in the Loire valley at a hotel hosting a stamp collecting fair. There are mysterious circumstances as to Ethelred's being there and he is, as usual, not forthcoming with Elsie. She would like to take him back to England but the murder of a British guest keeps them hostage of sorts when the local French police insist that all occupants remain until everyone can be interrogated. Just when Elsie and Ethelred think the police are done and they can leave another guest is killed. And then a third attack. The police continue to detain all guests.
It seems they have been cast in a parody of No Exit with a French hotel of exceedingly low standards serving as their private hell. No multi-channel cable TV, no spa, no exercise room, no real amenities at all. What to do beside roaming from the uncomfortably furnished, claustrophobic "lounge" to the dining room to the terrace in repeated cycles? Elsie decides she might as well get to the bottom of all the madness by turning detective and questioning the guests herself. Trouble is everyone else has the same idea. The hotel becomes a veritable beehive of amateur detection with even two Danish children armed with magnifying glasses and notebooks joining in the hunt to nab the murderer.
Elsie takes center stage for most of the story and there is a broader comic sensibility here than in the first outing where Ethelred was in charge of the narrative. There is still the interesting alternation between Elsie and Ethelred as narrators, but Elsie's is the dominant voice this time. She's determined to beat Ethelred at his own game.
For the first part of the book Ethelred lingers in the background, more of a distant observer than a true participant. His contributions to the story seem like a sardonic Rod Serling commenting on the action. He lectures us on murder methods ("I have always found poison immensely convenient." and "Stabbing somebody to death is easier than you think."), his personal life ("I number fictional characters amongst my closest friends."), and -- of course -- the life of a writer:
I had not done any actual writing for months but I nodded. Writers are used to deluding themselves that all sorts of things are 'work' – searching the Internet for references to themselves, checking their Amazon ranking, blogging, making coffee. I'd done a few of those. I was working.When Elsie makes the surprising discovery of a cache of diamonds in a train station locker and complicates matters by doing a switcheroo the plot takes off in full force. From this point forward I was reminded of many of the Inspector Clouseau movies - especially A Shot in the Dark. The one-liners and the broad comedy increase with a frenzy. Elsie does her best to finger the killer in one of those "Let's gather all the suspects together" scenes, but... well, let's say it doesn't go very well for her. There are more twists in the denouement than a go-go dancer on speed.
The final page ends with an utterly surreal bit that made me laugh out loud for the first time and left me hungry for the next book, The Herring in the Library. I'll have to order it pronto -- along with a box of some fine chocolates. But I think I'll skip the peach truffles.
NOTE: Ten Little Herrings has been nominated for an Edgar. The second time Tyler has received a nod for Best Original Paperback.