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Before she created Sookie Stackhouse, the heroine of the Southern Vampires mystery series and latterly of True Blood fame, Charlaine Harris used to write pretty good non-paranormal mysteries. One of her early heroines was Aurora Teagarden and Real Murders was the first in a series of eight mystery novels featuring a heroine every bit as quirky as Sookie.
Charlaine Harris is an American author, a prolific writer with at least 27 full length novels that I know of to her credit as well as a string of novellas and short stories often included in crime and paranormal anthologies. Her early fiction was mainly in the crime sub-genre frequently referred to as being "cosy", a term used to differentiate crime fiction where the murder happens off stage rather than the more gruesome murders where every gory detail is described. Cosy fiction tends to concentrate on the clues and the detection rather than the awfulness of the crime.
Aurora Teagarden is a librarian living and working in the small town of Lawrenceton, Georgia, where nothing much seems to happen. Aurora, or Roe as she's affectionately known, belongs to the Real Murder Club, a group of people who meet to discuss famous crimes which remain unsolved. Just before the monthly meeting is to begin, Aurora discovers the massacred body of a fellow club member and the method of dispatch is exactly the same as that Aurora and her fellow club members were going to deliberate. This is just the first killing however, as the killer continues to murder his victims using the style of various historical killers and as Roe begins to investigate, she finds herself a target, making it even more imperative that she discovers who is perpetrating these crimes.
Price and availability:
Because of the success of True Blood, many of Charlaine Harris's earlier books are being reprinted and this one is no exception. It is currently available from Amazon in hardcover for £12.96 although used paperback copies are for sale on Amazon Marketplace from £1.48. I borrowed my copy from the library, so it might be worth checking your own local library's catalogue first to see whether they have a copy.
I've been a fan of the Sookie Stackhouse books since the first one was published back in 2000 and having devoured all of them, I began to look at Charlaine Harris's back catalogue. Much as I enjoy her paranormal mysteries, it's very easy to OD on vampires so it was a pleasure to discover that she has been writing crime and mystery fiction since the 1980s without a vampire in sight.
The book starts well with Aurora practising her Murder of the Month speech which she plans to give at her club meeting that evening. This is a great device for introducing the heroine and giving a thorough description of the person we're dealing with. Aurora is tiny, only four feet eleven inches with, we're told, "big glasses , brown eyes, pink cheeks (artificial) and good skin (real)." She's no beauty but has a quirkiness about her which makes me think that elements of her personality were grafted on to Charlaine Harris's later creation of Sookie Stackhouse.
Aurora's arrival at the venue for the club meeting presents the opportunity to introduce all the club members bar one, Mamie Wright, who is the first victim! Mamie was the wife of Gerald, an insurance agent, and the method of her death exactly replicated that of a historical murder of the wife of a Liverpool insurance agent. Aurora immediately begins putting two and two together and comes up with the theory that the murderer must be a member of the club which gives her ten suspects to choose from. As the bodies begin the pile up, Aurora's investigations point to two members of the club and she concentrates her attentions on them, but maybe, just maybe, she's looking in the wrong direction.
This book has plenty of clues plus quite a few red herrings which keep the reader guessing almost to the end. Charlaine Harris keeps her prose simple without too much in the way of flowery description, her paragraphs short and moves the story on at a cracking pace. During the course of Aurora's investigation, she becomes the object of affection for two men, one a policeman and one a famous crime writer newly arrived in Lawrenceton. But love isn't the name of the game here, it's murder all the way.
I quite enjoyed this book. It's definitely a light read somewhat in the same vein as an Agatha Christie mystery, being set in a small town with a limited pool of suspects. What set this apart is the fact that the Murder Club really do discuss real murders, most of which I'd never come across before even though several of the crimes re-enacted are unsolved British murder cases. In fact, as I'm not a student of historical unsolved murders, it wasn't until quite late on in the book when Ian Brady and Mira Hindley got a mention that I realised any of these historical cases were anything other than fiction.
Aurora herself makes an appealing heroine and her first person narration means that all the action is seen from her perspective and so the reader reaches the same conclusions on the crimes as she does. She's intelligent and just quirky enough to be interesting without being over the top. I can't say she's an entirely fully rounded character as there is a certain two dimensionality (if there is such a word) to her and the other characters here but I guess the author was still honing her skills at the time she wrote this.
As with Aurora, the others in the book could really do with a little more character development but I appreciate that with first books, there is only so much a writer can do without slowing the pace of the story. What characterisation there is is good enough and I'm fairly sure that as the series progresses, some of the people of Lawrenceton will be further fleshed out as we get to know them, Aurora and her two would-be suitors a little better.
What Charlaine Harris does very well is follow the advice all writers are given: She writes about what she knows. And what she knows best is small town USA and the southern states in particular and that is lovingly recreated in this novel and probably makes it far more appealing than it actually is. I would mark this as a 3½ star read but I've rounded that up to 4 rather than down to 3 stars, because this book shows that the series has potential. As a first book to a series, it's certainly set up a couple of situations which will, I'm sure, develop over the time and have made me curious enough that I fully intend to check out the next episode in the life of Aurora Teagarden and the people of Lawrenceton, Georgia.