When a friend of mine described this as one of the funniest mysteries he’d ever read, I thought it was worth hunting up, and it was. Ethelred Tressider (his parents assured him he was named after King Ethelred the First, not Ethelred the Unready) is an English genre writer with three pseudonyms, one for a series of contemporary mysteries featuring an eccentric middle-aged inspector, another for historical mysteries in the time of Chaucer, and a third for category romances. (All the romances feature oral and maxillofacial surgeons as heroes, since all the other romance authors else seemed to be using GPs or heart surgeons.)
Ethelred’s ex-wife turns up missing under strange circumstances, including the following apparent suicide note written in block capitals and left in the passenger seat of a rental car in a Channel-side car park:
TO WHOMSOEVER IT MAY CONCERN. DEAR SIR OR MADAM, I HAVE HAD ENOUGH. BY THE TIME YOU READ THIS I WILL HAVE GONE TO A BETTER PLACE. FAREWELL CRUEL WORLD ETC. CORDIALLY YOURS, G. TRESSIDER (MRS)
Ethelred has an agent named Elsie Thirkettle who doesn’t have a very high opinion of the writers she represents, though she thinks more of them than she does of their readers. Her take on Ethelred’s latest manuscript is “It’s crap.” When Ethelred asks if she’d like to be more specific in her critique, she explains, “It’s dog’s crap.”
Elsie volunteers to help Ethelred investigate the mystery of his ex-wife’s disappearance, but he tells her he has no use for amateur detectives even in fiction, and he’s not going to get in the way of the police. She tells him he was a fool anyway to try to stay on good terms with his ex after they split up, and he objects that it’s quite possible for ex-spouses to remain friends. “Geraldine and I must have had something in common, after all. We had a number of happy years together, though admittedly she was simultaneously having a number of happy years with somebody else.”
Of course, circumstances force Ethelred to play detective anyway, and Elsie insists on being involved despite his best efforts to stop her.
It’s a great deal of fun and laugh-out-loud funny in places, and it’s a decent mystery (of the English cozy school) as well. I recommend it.
One curious bit: Here and there the book quotes from an Inspector Fairfax manuscript Ethelred is working on, and one of them contains a paragraph that’s surprisingly poignant in an otherwise humorous book:
That summer Fairfax knew for the first time that he was old, a thing that is not a matter of having lived a certain number of years, but rather of having only a certain number of years still to live, and also a matter of knowing that there were people you had loved that you would never see again and that there were things you had done that you would not do again.
(By the way, Elsie calls mystery writers “herring-sellers” because of all the red herrings they insert into their books, and in appointing herself Ethelred’s assistant detective she declares herself a herring-seller’s apprentice, hence the title.)