This book is the third in Andrew Taylor’s mystery/ thriller series about the cunning and amoral William Dougal. The first, Caroline Minuscule (which I loved), hinged on some minor points of medieval handwriting; the second, Waiting For the End of the World, on the antics of apocalyptic cults. This book, like the others, looks at first like a fairly standard whodunit, and then the wheels come off and it turns into something else altogether.
At first, I was afraid that this book wasn’t going to feature William at all. It begins with an odd episode about a young boy, Harry, whose aunt is very ill, and then abruptly switches to giving us the narrative from the point of view of Celia, whose father Richard has recently committed suicide. But Celia’s godfather is Major Dougal — William’s father — and when Celia finally manages to convince William and the Major that her father was highly unlikely to have killed himself, their investigations become quite deep and dark, and put all three of them in danger from unexpected sources.
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. William Dougal has slowly evolved (actually, I’m not quite sure “evolved” is the right word) from a hapless, amoral coward, sloping off whenever danger rears its head, into someone who is quite competent at keeping secrets and dealing with unpleasantness. (True, he frequently handles it by telling lies and moving in the opposite direction, but still.) William has become someone you’d kind of want with you in a tight spot, rather than someone you’d want to avoid at all costs. Aren’t we proud?
And he’s still got a tiny, flickering flame of conscience, much as he would like to extinguish it. There’s a lovely scene in which he and Celia are bickering in the car, while outside the car a schoolboy is being bullied and his trousers taken away and thrown onto a roof. William refuses to help, on the grounds that the child would only catch it worse later if he did. But a few minutes later,
He stopped, and in a quite different tone, added: “Oh, shit. I won’t be a moment.”
He got out of the car and walked along to the diminutive front garden overlooked by the bay window. As Celia watched, he conferred briefly with the boy, hoisted himself up on the low window sill and yanked the trousers from the roof. The boy hastily put them on. William acted on an apologetic mime, which, Celia eventually realized, must be for the benefit of an unseen but understandably agitated householder…
“Priggish little beast,” William said without animosity as he got back into the car. “Did you see? I tried to bring a little sunshine into his life by offering him a quid. He spurned it. Said he’d been warned about strangers like me.”
Strangers like William are exactly what I’d like more of, thank you and please. The other characters are terrific, too: the tart Celia, the bluff Major, the steel-hearted dragon from the Ministry of Defense. This was another wonderful entry in this series, and I’m looking forward to reading more.