When obscure crime writer Ethelred Tressider vanishes, his dogged literary agent, Elsie Thirkettle, is soon on his trail. Finding him (in a ramshackle hotel in the French Loire) proves surprisingly easy. Bringing him home proves more difficult than expected – but (as Elsie observes) who would have predicted that, in a hotel full of stamp collectors, the guests would suddenly start murdering each other?
One guest is found fatally stabbed, apparently the victim of an intruder. But when a rich Russian oligarch also dies, in a hotel now swarming with policemen, suspicion falls on the remaining guests.
Elsie is torn between her natural desire to interfere in the police investigation and her urgent need to escape to the town’s chocolaterie. Ethelred, meanwhile, seems to know more about the killings than he is letting on. Finally the time comes when Elsie must assemble the various suspects in the Dining Room, and reveal the truth . . .
Questions for reading groups
1. "The only strange thing about my telephone conversation with Ethelred was that he had been dead for almost a year.” Did you find that the opening chapter drew you in and made you want to find out more? Were the issues raised in it satisfactorily resolved by the end?
2. This book is a sequel to The Herring Seller’s Apprentice. In it, Elsie comments: “producing sequels is the sure sign of the second rate author”. Do you agree? (To be fair to Elsie, major writers on the whole have not produced series – but what about Trollope? Or Anthony Powell? Or Proust?) Series certainly tend to be more common in crime fiction – most crime writers have produced a series, even if they also write stand-alones. Why should this be?
3. Still on sequels and series for the moment, Ten Little Herrings begins with some unfinished business from The Herring Seller’s Apprentice and makes occasional references back to the earlier book. What problems, from a story-telling point of view, do series present for the writer – in this case and more generally?
4. In the Herring Seller’s Apprentice, Elsie does not feature as a narrator until about a third of the way through the book. Here she tells the story from the beginning. What effect does this have on the narrative?
5. How would you describe the relationship between Ethelred and Elsie?
6. Who were your favourite characters (if any) and why? Are you more likely to get likeable characters in humorous fiction – or less likely? What makes a character likeable anyway?
7. Towards the end of the book, Elsie gathers all of the suspects together to reveal who the killer is. Though this is a classic literary device, it is done much more rarely now. Does it work in this case?
The book touches on “metafiction” (fiction about fiction), particularly in the final chapter, where Ethelred’s account is clearly playing fast and loose with the likely facts. How important are the metafictional elements of the book?
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