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Hired to ensure that the 1907 maiden sailing of the Cunard steamship, The Mauretania, goes smoothly, George Porter Dillman and Genevieve Masefield blend in with the passengers of the first and second class. Initially, the only problems seems to be the buglary of a number of silver items, but Dillman thinks he knows who is responsible. Then there is a much bigger problem - a man goes missing, believed gone overboard, and the shipment of gold bullion, held under lock and key, has mysteriously disappeared. Could it have anything to do with a couple of Welsh miners in third class, planning to start a new life from nothing in the United States? Or are there higher class thieves on board? And can Dillman and Genevieve find out who is responsible without breaking their cover?
I have always had a soft spot for murders that take place in an enclosed space, such as a large house in the middle of a blizzard, or an island or, as is the case here, a ship. What particularly attracted me to this book was that it is set in the early twentieth century - there are no mobile phones, sat navs, or complicated forensic tests to solve the crimes here - it is just good old-fashioned detective work. And there is a great deal of description of the ship, its decor and the fashions of its passengers, all of which serve to provide the story with a colourful setting. This is the second book in a series featuring George Porter Dillman and Genevieve Masefiled, although I have not yet read the first one.
The main characters are reasonably well-drawn, but could have been better. There is clearly a love affair between the American Dillman and the English Genevieve, but how it transpired in the first place isn't really looked into - that was probably included in book one - and there is little chance for them to even meet, let alone make love, in this story. Dillman is rather a cold fish; he makes acquaintances with other second class passengers, but likes to keep his distance - his only real friend is a little girl who follows him around like a love sick puppy. Yet he is undoubtedly smart, able to put two and two together to make at least five. On the whole, he didn't grab me as the next Hercule Poirot, but he is entertaining enough.
Genevieve is a much more interesting character. She is described as a perfect English rose and certainly attracts the attention of most of the male passengers. This gives her ample opportunity to pump people for information, and this she does very well. And as she is planted in the first class area, there is plenty of opportunity through her, to describe the trappings of wealth that surrounds them. Again, she isn't the most imaginative of fictional detectives and she isn't one that will stay in my mind for any length of time, but she is perfectly adequate for the job in hand.
Probably the weakest part of the book is the plot. I suspect that Conrad Allen, (aka Keith Miles and husband of Judith Cutler - another author of crime fiction) is a bit of a nautical fan and that he wrote the book with the aim of showing off his knowledge, with the plot being secondary. It isn't a bad plot, it is just not particularly exciting and feels a bit like painting by numbers at times, with the odd murder thrown in just to spice things up a little. There are certainly no clever twists involved - but then maybe I've been spoiled by Agatha Christie and her like - this just comes across as being a poor cousin.
The language may take a little getting used to for some people. I'm not an expert in how people of a certain class spoke in the early twentieth century; nevertheless, it does seem to fit well - probably the best way to describe the spoken language at least is that it is very proper and BBC-like, which some may find a little awkward. There are also a lot of nautical terms which, although I vaguely knew the meaning of, wasn't sure were completely necessary.
On the plus side, I really felt that I was submerged in 1907 while reading the book; descriptions of the setting, right down to what was laid on the tables for dinner, were really well done, as were descriptions of the cabins and the beautiful clothes that the women dressed themselves up in. It is rare, I think, to find an author who can convey another time and place so convincingly. And although it is mainly about the rich and successful, Allen does delve into the lower classes and their poverty a little bit, when speaking about immigrants from England and Ireland who are planning to move to the States in search of a better life - the comparision between their cabin, clothes and belongings is quite shocking.
On the whole, I thought this was a really easy read and one that could equally appeal to fans of crime fiction and historical fiction. However, you may be disappointed if expecting a plot as skilled as that of one of the Queens of Crime - it is certainly nothing outstanding. I liked it enough to consider reading other books in the series though; hopefully the plots will improve as the series progresses. Three stars out of five.
The book is available from play.com from £2.15. Published by Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd, it has 304 pages. ISBN: 9780715632123