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With such a quirky title, I was immediately attracted to White Lies and Custard Creams when I saw it in the Amazon Kindle store. The price was a very reasonable £0.97 so I was more than happy to download the novel and see if it was indeed my kind of book.
What is it about?
Liz has a knack of getting herself into some bizarre situations. She would love a quiet life running her accountancy business from home with just her dependable, laid back collie dog, Moocher for company, but there is the small matter of having to deal with her ex-husband, Hugh, and her collection of peculiar lodgers. At the start of the book, just when Liz is about to confide in Hugh that one of her lodgers has absconded with "3 months' rent, her collection of vintage Bonzo Dog postcards and all of one of the other lodgers' knickers", a mysterious woman appears looking for a lost tortoise capable of climbing walls. At this point I knew I was in for a zany and slightly surreal plotline and it just got better. We meet Liz's oldest lodger, Simon, who has a habit of leaving smouldering cigarettes in his pocket and setting himself on fire - "He doesn't smoke in the house - part of his body might but he doesn't" - and two newcomers, Julie and Tony, who both seem to want to move into Liz's home as a matter of extreme urgency. Liz isn't sure why, but as long as the gas bill gets paid she isn't too bothered. If that wasn't enough there are some rather odd neighbours to contend with. On one side there's Lonely Lydia - "she's very sweet and a Poor Thing because she's so lonely, but she's a damn nuisance" and on the other there's Git Next Door. When a brick comes through Liz's front room window and she subsequently finds a human finger in her fridge - "on a very pretty plate, covered in Cling Film" - the stage is set for an unusual black comedy/crime mystery involving inept part-time hoodlums, disappearing evidence, kidnappings, drug dealers, long lost relatives, secrets, lies and plenty of biscuits along the way.
My thoughts on the novel
All in all I found this novel an absolute hoot! Liz makes an unlikely amateur sleuth. She is a lovable heroine, who I connected with straightaway. Liz is just trying to get on with life and support herself. She can't quite shake off her feelings for her ex-husband, especially when she learns that he is engaged to be married to another woman, but she soldiers on. She's a refreshing lead character. It was pleasing to read about someone who was not always obsessing about her appearance or her weight, didn't have a fabulously glamorous job and wasn't forever bursting into tears when the stress built up. Liz is neither pathetically weak, nor annoyingly strong. She is endearingly world-weary, but she still believes in romance deep down. When the going gets tough, Liz gets biscuits, which is a philosophy I can relate to. She isn't irritatingly virtuous. We never see her in the gym or grabbing a healthy lunch at the salad bar. Another thing I liked was that Liz isn't one of these annoyingly clever amateur detectives who always finds the right answer. On the contrary, Liz tends to rush from one situation to another like a headless chicken, randomly finding things out, making mistakes, putting her foot in it and falling back on the custard creams for comfort. She's a woman after my own heart! There are some great moments when she tries to be heroic and Boadicea-like or when she tries to be sultry and alluring and it goes hilariously wrong.
Liz has a great bond with her dog, Moocher, and is fiercely protective of him. Her attempts to defend Moocher lead to some wonderful comic moments. There is a great scene where someone tells Liz that her dog smells and she retorts loudly- "He's an uncut male. They all smell!" which makes every man in the street turn round and take notice. "Millions of men, furniture men, car-owning men, lawn-mowing men, were looking at her as though she'd let a centuries old, forever unspoken secret out of the bag and they wanted to burn her at the stake."
Moocher is a character in his own right. As long as there are crumbs to nibble on, he is unfazed by life. He and Liz make a good team. Susan Alison's observations of canine behaviour are spot on and many of her descriptions of Moocher will be familiar to dog owners. I note that Susan Alison is also a talented artist who has painted many beautiful pictures of dogs. Her love of dogs and understanding of them comes across very clearly in her portrayal of Moocher but never lapses into sentimentality.
Although I enjoyed this mad, high-speed comic caper, I admit I found it confusing at times. Liz's life does become extremely chaotic and frantic, which is great from the humour point of view but does mean it is hard to keep track of the plot. The reader's attention is drawn to one suspicious character after another as Liz rushes around, trying to make sense of her crazy situation. Red herrings are picked up and discarded, only to be picked up again. Just when you think you are following it, another character is introduced who invariably has connections with another character, so you have to slot them into the frame. I found that if I left it a few days then picked up the novel after a break, it took me a while to recap on the action. This interrupted the flow and spoilt my enjoyment of the book somewhat. There were just too many twists and turns for me to cope with. That said, at least I was kept guessing until the end. What I had been expecting to happen didn't turn out to be the case and it is always satisfying when a novel truly surprises you. The characters were well-rounded and mostly unpredictable.
This is a very visual novel with some extremely funny slapstick moments, including an incident when an intruder is attacked with a bust of Beethoven and pinned to the ground in a sea of crusty socks and an amusing sequence involving the dog flap, which is used by Liz's lodgers (as well as the dog) for getting in and out of the property when they forget their keys. There is also a wonderful scene involving a getaway vehicle and someone in a pair of recalcitrant trousers. Perhaps my favourite episode though involves a farcical dog-shampooing scene which takes a very unlikely turn. I think it would make a splendid film and I was able to picture the events very clearly in my mind.
The relationship between Liz and Hugh works well and the author captures very credibly the irritation and exasperation each feels towards the other, along with the feelings of fondness which won't go away. The old cliché about not being able to live with someone and not being able to live without them is particularly true in relation to Hugh and Liz, as is the way that you often want someone back as soon as you realise someone else has got their claws into them. Liz's jealousy towards Hugh's fiancée, Charity, later referred to as 'Uncharitable Charity' made me smile, as did Hugh's patronising way of starting a sentence with "Now Liz" when he is about to express disapproval of something she has done - which is quite often. They are a very convincing pair. I loved the way that Liz's main concern amidst so many potentially life-threatening events, was that Hugh would have a field day, berating her for attracting trouble yet again. She is torn between whether to involve him and let him be her knight in shining armour, or whether to keep him out of it and avoid another 'Now Liz' conversation. In one revealing passage Liz describes Hugh as being - "like a great black looming mountain, waiting to fall on her with so much disapproval she'd suffocate under it."
I would recommend this novel, even though it requires a lot of concentration to avoid losing the different threads of the plot. The threads are, at least, all tied up properly at the end. It is a superb black comedy which reminded me of a Bernice Rubens novel in some respects. (I note that one Amazon reviewer has compared it to Terry Pratchett's writing style, which I would not disagree with either). It is a great spoof on the criminal world. Liz inhabits the sort of surreal world where you can be munching a custard cream one minute and have a gun pointed at your head the next and where people shout, "mind my bulbs!" to escaping criminals who run through their garden . Severed fingers and kidnap attempts are not the sort of thing she ever expected to come across in her normal suburban residential street but after a while Liz, like the reader, is pretty much ready for anything. It's an enjoyable read for anyone who fancies something a little wacky and different with a quintessential English charm to it and eccentric characters you will certainly warm to. At its current bargain price, it's well worth snapping up.