Fay Sampson: The Wounded Snake

A mystery doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel to be enjoyable – that’s certainly proven by the scores of cozy mysteries published each month. Another formula beloved by readers (and viewers of Acorn TV and similar networks) is the British village mystery, a slightly rarer commodity. Much of contemporary British crime writing is of the extremely dark variety. And while I’m certainly a fan of writers like Ian Rankin, Val McDermid and Stuart MacBride, sometimes I yearn for something a little more in the Marple and Poirot mode.

That’s a long way of saying that Fay Sampson’s The Wounded Snake fits nicely into the Marple mode, complete with an older, nosy female detective, the purposeful and capable Hilary. and her buddy, the recently widowed Veronica. The two women are enrolled in a crime writing course at historic, 14th century Morland Abbey, featuring a well known crime writer as the keynote speaker.

Unfortunately the crime writer is whisked away to the hospital in the middle of the night – she’s in her 90’s, but it doesn’t stop the crime writing hopefuls from speculating that it may have actually been a poisoning, and when detectives start nosing around, they are sure of it, with theories flying everywhere.

Undeterred by the author’s illness (she’s not dead, after all) the fledgling writers head out to investigate the town in hopes of finding a perfect setting for their novels. Hilary finds a shivery confluence of three wells, ending in a secluded alleyway in the middle of the ancient city of Totnes. She happily writes there the first day but when she and her friend Veronica return, they unfortunately stumble across a dead body.

This novel has a perfect assortment of characters – there’s even a retired colonel – and Sampson skillfully creates a valid pool of suspects, a clever mystery, an evocative setting and a completely and utterly pleasant and engaging read. There’s nothing too upsetting involved (though the discovery of the body is fairly graphic, and Hilary is believably disturbed by her finding), and the solution has a nice mix of ingenuity and humanity. If you’re a fan of the British village mystery, this is not to be missed.