Joan Coggin: The Mystery at Orchard House

Rue Morgue released Joan Coggin’s charming first mystery, Who Killed the Curate?, a few years ago, and has now satisfied Lady Lupin enthusiasts with the second volume, The Mystery at Orchard House. After reading the first book I was an instant convert. Lady Lupin Hastings, a young socialite who marries an older vicar, settles down to life in the country interspersed with visits from her city friends. Like many another gentle British humor classic – Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate and E.F. Benson’s Lucia series spring to mind – the humor is almost organic and after a buildup, hysterically funny. I was worried that after the delights of the first book the second one would be a let down, but this is far from the case. It may even be funnier.

In this one Lupin has become a mother and nursed her family through influenza. When she gets sick herself, she goes to Orchard House – run by old friend Diana Turner – for a rest cure. What happens is far from restful for Lupin, but for us lucky readers, very funny. The people Coggins writes about may be “types” but they are infused with enough life to be timeless – you’ll recognize the artistic, self involved bore, the constantly arguing young marrieds, the woman who is a slave to her mother’s desires, etc. While the humor may not be sharp or unkind it is all the same dead on, and there’s a scene early on in the book where Lupin is trying to fall asleep to no avail – people keep appearing in her bedroom telling her their troubles. It is classic, as is her maid’s advice the next morning – lock the door. The Mystery at Orchard House is not a murder mystery, simply a mystery involving a rash of thefts and a mishap with a car that causes some injuries (none fatal). When everything is sorted out not only has Coggin proved herself to be a deft humorist, but an even more able portrayer of character – the solution is character based and makes total sense. I don’t think I’ve enjoyed a book more all summer. This has everything – humor, a terrific lead, funny situations, lots of memorable supporting characters, and a gentle storytelling rhythm that made me extremely sorry to finish the last page. There are four books in this series – I devoutly hope Rue Morgue will eventually publish them all, as they are a gift to mystery lovers everywhere.