Mari HowardJune 1, 2021
more to read, mystery novel, social comment

Two Village Based Novels: Murder Lost & Found, and The Diary of Isabella M. Smugge

by Debbie Young, and Ruth Leigh

After Sarah Moss’s three linked, feminist, rather serious novels, (Night Waking, Bodies of Light, and Signs for Lost Children), read in autumn and winter, I have turned to a couple of lighter books. Each author is someone I know: Debbie Young, who introduced me to the Alliance of Independent Authors, and later invited me to participate in the Hawkesbury Upton literary festival, of which she is the founder, Ruth Leigh via a Facebook writers’ group.

With summer at last appearing, both these books would provide an excellent light read for a vacation or staycation. Murder Lost and Found is the seventh book in Debbie Young’s cosy mystery series, and keeps you guessing past the halfway mark as to whether or not a crime has really being committed. Or have Sophie and her friend Ella been hoodwinked by a joker?

Once verified, the pace increases, and the sad fact behind the murderer’s intentions becomes clear. No spoilers, but as is appropriate, the motives are found, as was the body, in the depths of the local primary school.

Having read most of the series, I've always found Sophie Sayers a wide-eyed, innocent protagonist, and her employer/boyfriend Hector not entirely someone who's future intentions towards her I would trust. As we move through the series she sometimes seems to be becoming slightly more savvy, but in this story she is definitely showing us her most innocent side, while Ella seems slithery and suspect, and Hector doesn't help Sophie’s peace of mind at all. The text sustains the usual atmosphere of archness and amusing irony, though as a city dweller how could I comment on the attitudes and relationships of villagers many of whom are restricted to living among the same group of people their whole lives? They were mostly together at the primary school - and long before now each found their allotted place, and knows well the foibles of the others! Certainly the denouement is unexpected and the motive gives pause for thought about traditional English education.

‘Suddenly, the church clock began to strike midday, and I knocked over a sugar bowl in my surprise’: what could be cosier, once the murderous culprit (and the body) are uncovered? A book to leave you with that warm feeling, all well in the world in a perfect English country village.

Ruth Leigh’s debut novel, The Diary of Isabella M. Smugge, also set in a village, (it's Suffolk this time), also brings rural and cosmopolitan living into contrast, and on the first hearing about the book I expected it to be a waspish critique of well-heeled contemporary living, especially of ‘influencer’ style mums. 

I found it a pleasant surprise, and was soon captivated by Isabella Smugge (rhyme it with Bruges), known to her cult followers on Instagram as Issy. Again we are given a portrait of village life but here it is the contrast between Issy with her urban sophisticate ways and the mums at the school gates, particularly those from the council estate struggling with various family difficulties yet gamely carrying on. Issy discovers how the other half live. As various difficulties hit her family and thus her influencer status, she begins to see how other people's lives, without the safety net of wealth, are impacted by coping with their everyday troubles. She is treated as just another mum by the Head. By contrast, her present life seems a charmed existence: her banker/hedge fund manager husband, au pair, and wonderfully written brittle, gin-drinking Mother, (‘If I begin to behave like that, shoot me!’) though clouded by memories of boarding school, from where, nonetheless, Issy left with the ‘crime’ she committed still unsolved. All these contrast with her new friend, the Vicar’s wife, (whose background I found a little extreme, though it made its point of apparent contrast.)

Other reviewers have likened Leigh’s book to the work of Jane Austen: there is certainly something of Emma in Issy Smugge…

And a clever thing about Leigh’s portrait of Issy is how true it is to reality. I have had friends from this group,  lively, life-affirming women with a strange innocence about them around the class differences and the wealth issue: this made them charming and funny, and you knew that despite the ‘big kisses’ at the bottom of their letters, these larger than life ladies, (I think of splendid blooms at the Chelsea Flower Show), are sure to melt back into their proper place, unlikely to become real bosom pals with us middle-class mortals. They can’t, they are different breed.

Again, a book which reaches its denouement as it gallops downhill towards the end, and in the tradition of that old Victorian Charles Dickens, leaves the reader waiting impatiently for a sequel. Though from early on I guessed where the problem might turn out to be. Although this is a longer and, as we begin to realise, a more serious book than it appears, it’s a page-turner which might suit a longer holiday break.

Both highly recommended for enjoyment, relaxation, and a gentle way to study the 'human condition'.