I picked up the first two of Morag Joss’s award-winning Sara Selkirk series — Funeral Music and Fearful Symmetry — at a book sale in the spring, mostly because I like the name Morag, and also because it was appealing to have a cellist as the detective. The books take place in Bath, somewhere I’ve read about but never been; this was another piece of their appeal. Ancient Rome! Jane Austen! Lovely. I settled in.
Funeral Music is a rather complicated mystery, beginning with the murder of Matthew Sawyer, who is the Director of Museums and Civic Leisure Resources in Bath. There are several red-herringy paths about antiques and collections and suspects (and of course he wasn’t a terribly nice man), but after each suspect is interviewed, he or she says the same sensible sort of thing: do people murder other people because they wanted a job/ didn’t get a raise/ had an argument with someone? In your experience?
Well, no. The stakes are usually higher. So it’s up to Sara Selkirk, world-famous cellist, to find out just what those stakes were. Sara is dealing with personal trauma from the recent death of her partner Matteo, and she can’t play; a musician’s version of writer’s block. So she has plenty of time to ask questions of her friend Sue who works for the Great Bath, Sue’s mysterious boyfriend Paul, the museum curator Olivia, and other characters, before she pieces the solution together. She has an intimate view of the case, as well, because she’s giving cello lessons to DCI Andrew Poole — a relationship that becomes warmer and warmer as the book goes on, despite Andrew’s being thoroughly married.
I confess: though the plot of this book was entertaining and complex enough, and though the writing was serviceable, and though there were some fun descriptions of Bath and of cello lessons, I did not enjoy reading Funeral Music. This book sneers at its characters in a way that grew increasingly unpleasant. Each man is set up as self-important, deluded, and ridiculously sexually obsessed. Each woman is set up as vain, shallow, needy, clingy, and ludicrously easy to offend. The only exceptions to this rule are Sara, Andrew, and a frail, elderly musician named Edwin. Other than that, we are invited to laugh at and despise every person in the book. Here’s an example of what I mean: in this scene, Sara is visiting Edwin, and the woman who is helping to care for him has just brought them tea and left them in the garden:
“Old Serena, she likes the lavender best. Old-fashioned, she says, that’s what she likes. She’s from Sydney, you know. Doing Europe. Bath’s a revelation to her, of course.” He chuckled. “She went to see that film, Emma. Raved about it. Oh, I said, borrow it. It’ll be in the bookcase.”
He began to snigger and some of his tea went down the wrong way. As he recovered he reached out to touch Sara’s arm and said, in a voice high-pitched with mirth, “And you know what she said? She said, ‘Oh, is the book out already?'”
Edwin’s wholehearted and malicious pleasure in Serena’s mistake was infectious; they both shook with laughter.
Oh. Ha ha ha. Someone who is generously caring for you and obviously likes you isn’t as well-educated as you are! Well, I can certainly see how that would be a knee-slapper.
Honestly, this sort of thing was ongoing, and ruined the book for me; there was so much evident us/them pleasure in it. I did finish the novel, because I wanted to see who did it and how it turned out. But now that I know, I don’t think I’ll read the second novel. The warmth between Sara and Andrew isn’t enough to warm the rest of the book.