Top critical review
Mystery thriller with echoes of Agatha Christie
6 May 2015
With its echoes of Agatha Christie, the premise of Camera…Action…Murder! sounded promising. Amateur sleuth Diana Rivers is a writer but has been having trouble actually finishing her next book following the birth of her daughter. She’s bored. So when she and her husband are invited to travel from their home in Cyprus to attend a reunion of their old theater company at a posh country house estate in England, she’s thrilled, despite her memories of a still-unsolved assault fifteen years earlier. In best Christie style, we meet Diana’s old friends, and are introduced to the simmering brew of old resentments and new tensions at some length before the first murder occurs, followed by the second killing.
The story certainly seems to follow the Christie “formula”. First Mortimer gives us the setting, then we see the murders. Wound around those are the three story strands—the main murder whodunit, the hint of romance as happily-married Diana encounters former lover/current police inspector Adam, and the touch of evil as it becomes clear that multiple transgressions (including that never-solved assault) have been committed by various characters.
But for me, reading Faith Mortimer’s Camera…Action…Murder! is like entering a time warp. I know it’s supposed to have a contemporary setting, but everything feels like it’s in what TV Tropes calls Genteel Interbellum Setting, that vaguely between-World-Wars era of women in furs and cocktail dresses, men in dinner jackets, country houses and estates, and sophisticated banter. So on the rare occasions when Diana or another character gets a text message, it feels as out of sync as if Darth Vader and Obi Wan had whipped out their light sabers in McDonalds. With the country house setting and the (to my American ears) stilted posh British conversation, it seemed that nothing significant occurred that couldn’t have happened in a 1930s drawing room (or in a game of Clue/Cluedo).
I admit that it’s probably unfair to come in at the middle of the series, and then blame the author for not providing basic information about characters or setting. But I went through much of the book with the only information about Diana’s husband Steve being that he’s “handsome” and that they met while both were actors in the same theater company. Her daughter Poppy is “adorable”, and Diana herself apparently has “long glossy hair”. I have no idea what any of them look like, what Steve does (other than repair old lamps), or what their life is like.
The setting for the story, England’s Cotswolds district—one of the most beautiful and charming areas of that or any other country—is described like something out of a slightly-stuffy travel guide (“The Cotswolds were well known for gentle hillsides (wolds), sleepy villages, and for being so typically English. She loved the non-cemented dry-stone walls everywhere. The eighteenth- and nineteenth-century walls represented an important historical landscape and were a major conservation feature.”) I would have loved to have the characters experience these details themselves and share that with readers. For example, what if their investigations or even just their travels could have taken them into one of the local churches, where they marvel at finding something that rivals a cathedral located in a tiny village. Or perhaps as they examine a medieval church ceiling covered with carvings, they could learn some tiny fact that helps resonate later in the story. Instead, we’re treated to a passage that sounds like it could have come straight from a history textbook: “During the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries—the medieval period—native Cotswold sheep were famous throughout Europe for their heavy fleeces and the high quality of wool they produced. Cotswold wool commanded a high price, so the wealth generated by the wool trade enabled wealthy traders to leave their mark by building fine houses and wonderful churches, known as wool churches.” Not only is this a lot of tell instead of show, but it has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the story.
For me, Agatha Christie’s books succeed on two levels. Level One is first and foremost the characters. Each of them, but especially the detective, is fully rounded and fleshed out with charming idiosyncrasies or ominous foibles. But in Camera…Action…Murder, I had a difficult time feeling like I knew anything at all about amateur detective Diana, so I never felt any connection with her.
Level Two is that surprise ending. Christie herself caught readers with the twist at the end by systematically breaking almost every rule of detective stories. There’s a story—perhaps apocryphal—that Agatha Christie was almost kicked out of the Detection Club for breaking their rules of detective fiction, and only saved by the single dissenting vote of then-president Dorothy L Sayers. (Yep, there was such a club and they actually did write down rules for detective fiction.) And it’s pretty indisputable that Agatha Christie—who served as its president from 1957-1976—also regularly broke most of those detective story rules. Of course readers are attracted to different types of mystery and detective stories. But one thing most agree is that they enjoy looking at the clues and trying to figure things out with—or before!—the sleuth. That’s why “You’re probably wondering why I’ve asked you all here” is a trope that’s kept working so well for so long. Sadly, for me the twist in Camera…Action…Murder! was telegraphed almost immediately, and so the surprise factor was lacking.
In trying to assign a rating, I’m a little torn. On the one hand, I enjoyed the way the story unfolded and the interactions of the various players. On the other hand, the actual denouement seemed forced. I didn’t see a clear reason for something that had smoldered for years to suddenly drive the murderer to act. Saying that the murderer is insane is easy, but would someone that out of touch with reality have the ability to engage in such meticulously premeditated actions?
For readers who’ve already followed this series from its beginning, of course, it’s possible that none of my issues would apply. For them, or for any readers who aren’t as skeptical about motives, Camera…Action…Murder! is an undemanding and entertaining read. For those reasons, I’d give it three stars and I’d definitely read more from Faith Mortimer. But I’d be pretty excited if the next book steps out of Christie’s shadow to not only let us get to know Diana, but challenges Diana grow and change in ways Christie’s Poirot and Marple never achieved.
**I received this book for free from the publisher or author in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.**