Review: Death at Hazel House

A Cozy Mystery for the Kindle

This is a new edition of the first book in the Sukey Reynolds series by veteran cozy mystery author Betty Rowlands. It was originally released in 1997 as An Inconsiderate Death. From the 3rd of May, it will be available for the Kindle, re-titled as Death at Hazel House. And if you’re a reader of cozies and haven’t come across this one yet, yes, it’s definitely worth your time.

The story is set in the village of Marsdean in Gloucestershire, where we are introduced to Scene of Crime Officer Sukey Reynolds. She is in her thirties, with a teenage son and an ex-husband. She is also dating a CID officer, Detective Inspector Jim Castle. Her job is to collect evidence, not solve crimes, but she doesn’t let that stop her from trying her hand at detection, almost becoming a victim herself in the process.

The first murder is that of Lorraine Chant, the wife of a wealthy businessman, who is found spreadeagled on her bed, strangled. This is just the beginning. As the novel unfolds, Rowlands presents us with a packed programme of villainy: illicit affairs, tax evasion, a double-crossing bank robber, fake identities, domestic violence, burglary, assault and another murder. There is plenty going on and motives galore. And we see it all at first hand, because Rowlands has chosen an unusual structure for a mystery novel.

Instead of following Sukey or even the CID officers, as we would in a police procedural or a typical amateur sleuth story, we dip in and out of scenes shown from the point of view of several other characters, most often Hugo Bayliss, Lorraine’s former lover. Thus, we discover situations, relationships and motives that Sukey and the police know nothing about until much later. This adds variety and suspense, and gives the story a lot of forward momentum. It’s a page-turner in a way that cozies often aren’t.

However, it does mean that we see relatively little of Sukey herself. What we do observe of her home life and relationships is well drawn, and I especially liked the relationship she has with her son, Fergus. But sometimes, it doesn’t feel as though she is the protagonist, merely one character among many. I didn’t mind this, but some readers may prefer a more typical approach.

Rowland’s style is simple and straightforward, with no flashbacks or other complications. Her writing is very fluid and quick to read, but she does stop now and then for some nice snippets of description:

“A hand like a slab of concrete landed, none too gently, on his chest and forced him back among the cushions, where he lay staring up into eyes like grey pebbles set in flesh-coloured granite.”

And then she’s off again at a rapid pace, with dialogue and action. She spins many threads and confidently keeps them all in her hands until she ties them up neatly in the end. She makes it look easy.

Death at Hazel House is a quick and satisfying read, and a whole level above the typical cozy mystery, in characterisation, plot, pacing and complexity. I thoroughly recommend it and I’ll be catching up with more in this series.

A digital A.R.C. of this novel was supplied to me by Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

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