Book Review: Enter Pale Death
by Barbara Cleverly
Soho Crime, 2014
Since the debut of her stalwart Scotland Yard detective Joe Sandilands in 2001’s excellent The Last Kashmiri Rose, Barbara Cleverly has written twelve mysteries starring the character, twelve classic four-square British whodunits set in the “long week-end” of England between the wars. Last year’s A Spider in the Cup was understated but frequently superb, and Cleverly’s new novel, Enter Pale Death continues this strong streak with opening that gives readers a seemingly open-and-shut case of what a more innocent age referred to as “death by misadventure”: Lady Lavinia Truelove enters the stall of an enormous, unruly horse nicknamed “Lucifer” and, against the advice of two stable boys, approaches the animal – and is savagely bitten and stomped to death before their horrified eyes. It’s true that there are tensions simmering below the surface at the Truelove estate, tensions linking ambitious rising politician Lord Truelove, his wife, and a young woman named Dorcas Joliffe, who had only just been invited to visit the estate – and who’s been the love interest of now-Assistant Commissioner Sandilands for a few books now. But in a cannily-managed bit of narrative juggling on Cleverly’s part, these tensions don’t seem to have anything to do with Lady Truelove’s death. As one character puts it, the horse was caught “red-toothed.”
“If you want someone to swallow a thumping great lie,” one character remarks, in one of the neat little sayings that turn up frequently in Cleverly’s books, “conceal it between two slices of verifiable truth and add a little garnish.” And although there seems at first no possibility of concealment regarding Lady Truelove’s death, when Sandilands goes to the estate for a weekend in order to investigate, he finds a great deal to occupy him, including a plot-strand involving the ancient pagan religion of England – a subplot which grows more prominent and more interesting as it develops.
Cleverly has never taken the trouble to shake off a certain offhand laziness in her prose. Hardly a page is free of examples like “crack of dawn” or “regular as clockwork” or “raring to go” or the almost parodic “fearless rider to hounds.” But her plots are splendidly sound, and although Sandilands himself is a bit bland as a central hero, he’s surrounded by energetically-drawn secondary characters, and Cleverly can be remarkably direct in her depictions of the darkness and violence that are never far from the events she orchestrates. This violence often echoes the experiences Sandilands had at the front in the First World War – as when he reaches the side of an explosion victim just before the poor unfortunate dies:
Fired from below, the blast had caught him on one side of the neck and made its way upwards, smashing the jaw and deflecting sideways. The eyes were intact and open. Disconcertingly, they seemed to be staring back at him. In alarm, Joe moved sideways out of their range. They eyes followed his. Locked on. From the open mouth there came the same inhuman shriek Joe had heard from the doorway. Joe steadied himself with an effort. With his speaking mechanisms smashed to pieces, all the dying man could do was make a noise through one pipe or other that remained intact. Joe reckoned that he must have survived twenty minutes in this hopeless state of paralysis an that death would come very soon. He’d cradled dying men in his arms in the trenches, in disbelief at the amount of a man’s body that could be shot away and yet leave him for a few moments able to communicate.
Enter Pale Death gets stronger and more page-turning as it goes along; Cleverly works in almost half a genuinely good plot-twists in the book’s second half, and although Sandilands and Dorcas still have about as much romantic chemistry as a rock and a tree root, their sharp observations of all the eccentric characters around them make for unfailingly interesting reading. And as for whether or not that beastly horse ends up guilty … well, that would be telling.