Sunday, July 9, 2023

Book Review: The Puzzle of Blackstone Lodge by Martin Edwards

A man went missing inside Blackstone Lodge in 1606. Three Hundred years later, it was the turn of another, earning notoriety for the dilapidated Lodge within the village community living in Blackstone Fell, surrounded by treacherous rocks, murderous swamps, and devious torrents. For the quick-witted, heavy-drinking, ambitious crime journalist Nell Fagan, out of work due to her own shenanigans, a lifeline opens up when some deaths in the nearby sanatorium reeks of foul play. She goes there for an investigation on the pretext of researching the disappearances and manages to stay in Blackstone Lodge. When she also turns into thin air, private detective Rachel Savernake has to interfere and get confronted with several mysteries: baffling disappearances, brutal murders, a medium that brings the voices of dead souls, a violent rector unleashing hell on his miserable wife, and a sanatorium in tatters that takes more lives than it saves.

The Puzzle of Blackstone Lodge, written by Martin Edwards, is the third installment of the book series featuring Rachel Savernake, a quick-thinking, resourceful amateur private detective who loves to live in danger and solve murders. I haven't read the previous two parts. Netgalley provided me with an advance ebook copy in return for my honest feedback. The book is an adventurous investigative thriller with a humorous undertone that is set in 1930s England. Several historical events, places, and personalities are mentioned in the novel.

I loved the setup of the mystery elements in the book. Initially, the element of intrigue involved only two mysterious disappearances that happened within three hundred years. When the story progresses, we find there are more murders to be solved, and soon after, the death count picks up. Left and right, people are killed, and each one is more gruesome than the previous. The mystery that began with a small and obscure enigma evolves into a mighty conundrum, which ultimately makes everyone associated with the events suspect. It made me think of an octopus slowly unfurling its tentacles to show its mammoth proportions.

The author is successful in creating an atmospheric thriller by setting it in a remote village that is surrounded by several natural obstacles that eventually turn fatal for many characters. The geography is a very important aspect of the plot, and the map that is provided at the beginning of the novel helps a lot to appreciate it properly. I won't say it is integral to refer to the map every time to understand the incidents depicted in it, but a look into it once in a while will give you a good perspective, which further enhances the reading experience. Another innovative attempt is the use of a clue finder at the end of the book. Along with hinting at the interesting clues that we missed while reading, it also serves the purpose of refreshing our memory of the plot points after reading the book.

Among the numerous characters, all of whom are more or less crucial to the plot, I liked the character of Nell. The initial chapters are focused on her, and you find a colourful character, a loose cannonball, who never stays down, always ready to get up and continue the fight. All her character flaws and weaknesses made her more endearing to me. I had a premonition about how her character would end up, but I dearly wanted her to be the one who stays till the end and comes out on top.

That brings us to the biggest turnoff I had with the book. I didn't like the protagonist. Her character was done with very broad sketches that don't mix with others. It's true that several classic detectives, like Holmes and Poirot, always stayed a level above the plot and other characters. But they had their own way of making the reader attracted to them. They had a charm that made us wait curiously and eagerly for the climax that binds all the plot threads neatly. This charm is missing in Rachel Savernake, and she ends up being a rude and entitled person who simply finds pleasure in putting down others. I started disliking her more because she literally caused the death of a character and proclaimed that the person deserved it many times. Her sidekicks are devoid of any charm and feel like animated robots when compared to the likes of Dr. Watson. Even the other characters of the novel never rose above the level of ordinary to create any impact on me while bad things were happening to them.

Maybe I didn't like the protagonist because I hadn't read the previous novels that established her. Maybe if I read them, I will become more sympathetic towards her and appreciate her behaviour more favourably. But when I consider The Puzzle Of Blackstone Lodge as a standalone novel, I have to conclude that this is a mystery novel with a fascinating and gripping plot but a terrible protagonist and weak characters. I am not sure if I want to read the previous installments, but I will definitely read a spinoff featuring the adventures of Nell Fagan if it is ever written.

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