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When literary agent Elsie Thirkettle is invited to accompany tall but obscure crime-writer Ethelred Tressider to dinner at Muntham Court, she is looking forward to sneering at his posh friends. What she is not expecting is that, half way through the evening, her host will be found strangled in his locked study. Since there is no way that a murderer could have escaped, the police conclude that Sir Robert Muntham has killed himself. A distraught Lady Muntham, however, asks Ethelred to conduct his own investigation. Ethelred (ably hindered by Elsie) sets out to resolve a classic "locked room" mystery.
1.) Murder mysteries set in country houses were once the staple fare of crime novels. What made the country house so popular as a setting? Does the setting still work today?
2.) Both Ethelred and Elsie are what might be described as “unreliable narrators”. Both report events from their own viewpoint and their descriptions of the same scene often vary. Ethelred describes Annabelle as “every inch the gracious hostess”; Elsie describes her as “some slapper in a blue dress who had clearly never come across the expression ‘mutton dressed as lamb’”. Do you generally trust Elsie’s account more than Ethelred? Does the reliability of their narrative vary, depending on who and what they are talking about? Can you think of other books with “unreliable narrators”? Actually, is there really any such thing as a “reliable narrator”?
3.) Elsie points out to Ethelred how much Annabelle is like Geraldine, Ethelred’s ex-wife. Does Ethelred strike you as the sort of person who is likely to make the same mistakes over and over again?
4.) The “Master Thomas” sections run in parallel with the main narrative. What themes and ideas are shared between these two threads of the novel? To what extent are Master Thomas’s predicaments mirrored by Ethelred’s? Is the prioress merely a thinly disguised Elsie?
5.)Writing dialogue in historical novels is notoriously problematic – particularly pre-1500. Sticking closely to genuine Middle English would make much of the text incomprehensible to anyone except an expert; straightforward modern day English sounds out of place. Some compromise is always needed. In the “Master Thomas” sections, most characters usually speak in a way that is vaguely archaic (“He wondered that the King had troubled me with a message of such insignificance”.) But others occasionally use modern colloquial English. (“The Comptroller left this for you though – letter for some geezer in Sussex.”) Does this mixture work in your opinion? Would it have worked in a book that was not humorous? How does it compare with the dialogue in other historical novels you have read?
6.) The book has an ambiguous ending. Can you think of other books that offer more than one possible ending? Does this particular ending work for you? More generally, is ambiguity less acceptable in a crime novel, where the reader might reasonably expect a straight answer to the question ‘whodunit’?
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