Sunday, February 25, 2018

Excellent British Traditional Mystery from Rebecca Tope, THE HAWKSHEAD HOSTAGE

It's a small world, true enough. But in the world of mystery fiction, it's also a very wide world with more good books and skilled authors than most people can catch up with. Still, I'm always somehow surprised when I find an established author I've never heard of ... and delighted, because a list of previous books comes along with the discovery!

This season I finally read a book by British author Rebecca Tope, thanks to publisher Allison & Busby sending an after-publication copy. Tope's current two series are one set in the Cotswolds (a place I'd love to walk sometime) and one set in the Lake District (dear to my heart as a lifelong fan of the Swallows and Amazons children's books).  THE HAWKSHEAD HOSTAGE is in the Lake District group and features florist Persimmon "Simmy" Brown, who also appears in five other mysteries.

The action starts at Simmy's flower shop, where life is a bit dull in the summer tourist season, which pulls people outside for hiking and exploration but doesn't impel them to buy bouquets. Simmy is also trying to recover from the loss of one of her employees, who has gone to work at an upscale hotel instead for more action -- which turns out to involve Simmy after all, when Melanie dashes into the shop to announce that she's snagged Simmy a bit floral assignment, arranging massive flower vases for the hotel some distance away, sure to use two half-days per week ... and be worth being paid accordingly. Simmy's not sure this is a good thing, but she starts to adapt to the notion, and en route to the hotel to get acquainted, she provides a ride to a young hiker, Ben, whom she already knows. And Ben in turn is close friends with Simmy's remaining employee, an unusual youngster named Bonnie. Ben takes off to kill some time while Simmy meets the hotel staff, so she doesn't realize there's a problem until she returns to her car and her phone, which she'd left there:
Out of habit, Simmy switched on the phone, and within a few seconds it gave the little song that told her she had a message. Bonnie, she supposed, with a question about the shop. It was a voicemail, not a text, which suggested it might be urgent. With a sigh, Simmy put the phone to her ear, reluctant to discover what mistake the girl might have made without having recourse to advice.

"Simmy!" came a high-pitched voice, full of panic. "There's a body here. Under the trees, at the very top end of the lake. I don't know what to do. Well, I'll have to call 999. Who knows when you'll get this ... Hey!" The phone went silent in her hand, even though she continued to listen for further speech.

It was Ben. The last syllable had been closer to a scream than a shout. ... Not until that final word did she understand that this was real, and that the boy was not merely panicked but terrified.
When the body's found but Ben isn't, it's clear whoever killed the man on the hotel grounds must have taken Ben as a captive to protect themselves. Simmy of course feels responsible -- she gave the young man a ride, and he's gone missing.

But all her efforts run into dead ends, and it's Bonnie who puts the pieces and clues together to guess at what has happened to Ben and where to look for him. It takes so long to reach a solution -- what shape will he be in? Alive, dead, injured? And is there still a way that Simmy can make sure the young people survive to confront the criminals?

A lively read, jumping from one point of view to another, and not entirely easy for someone who hasn't read any of the other books in the series -- but well worth it, to realize what a good run of books by Tope is waiting to be read. In fact, since she's worked with three English-countryside series (the third is her West Country Mysteries), there's a big stack ready. That's great news!

(Tope's website is out of date, but it's not hard to find lists of her titles elsewhere.)

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

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