Monday, June 17, 2013

'An Invitation to Die' by Helen Smith

Winnie Kraster is an American book blogger who has just received an invitation from the Romance Writers of Great Britain (RWGB) to attend their annual conference held in London. Author of blog 'Tallulah's Treasures' Winnie is over the moon regarding the invitation as validation of her rising status in the blogosphere and confirmation that her reviews have been taken seriously by her favourite writers Polly Penham and Morgana Blakely who are among the RWGB's membership committee. Unfortunately for Winnie, her happiness is short-lived as she is found murdered only a few hours after she lands in Heathrow airport.

And so cue a murder mystery that would be incomplete without a cast of colourful characters with big egos and even bigger secrets to hide. Welsh fifty-something author Cerys Pugh from Cardiff whose hate for Winnie's blog is outspoken and holds all bloggers in contempt. Archie Mears, the slim mid-thirties writer who refuses to speak of his past, has dark dreams, lives with a fear of being trapped by fire or water and whose poetic looks betray the fact that he would "strike back speedily and effectively if provoked". North London sensual romance writer Zena, and self-proclaimed "North London Goddess" interested in nature continuously burning incense at an altar, physically intimidating and who reveals in an interview that she is "not afraid to strike at someone or something that is holding her back". Polly Penham, a soft spoken, friendly writer who has found fame and fortune and is the envy of everyone but is known for her dramatic episodes and conspiracy theories. Morgana Blakely, self-absorbed president of the RWGB's organising committee who is used to always getting her way even if it means tweaking some truths here and there.

And then there is Emily Castles, our amateur sleuth, who is a free lancer working the odd job here and there and who reminded me of a slightly older Nancy Drew. Other than the fact that she had just completed a job in Canary Wharf (her comment on the elevators rings so true), that she lives in South London occasionally looking after her neighbour's cat when they are away and that she is at the conference to assist Morgana Blakely there is little more that we are told about her. Emily is a no-nonsense likeable twenty six year-old woman, with a dry sense of humour, sharp wit and an equally sharp eye for details. Helen Smith takes it for granted perhaps that readers would already be familiar with Castles from the Emily Castles Mysteries, which unfortunately I myself have not read. It is equally important to stress here that this in no way impacts or detracts from the story but is merely an observation on my part. It is also worth noting that 'Invitation to Die' is the first full-length book in the Emily Castles mystery series and it has just been published by Thomas & Mercer in paperback and as an ebook. Smith has already published two novellas in the series, Three Sisters and Showstoppers.

This short novel packs a rather long list of characters that Helen Smith manages to mix together in the most effortless way coming up with a very convincing plot. Every one is potentially a plausible suspect even if not part of the RWGB crowd such as the chocolatier Monsieur Cyril Loman owner of one of the most prestigious chocolate shops in Knightsbridge who cannot let go of what he has witnessed in his past life before seeking asylum in the UK at the age of fifteen. Hotel manager Nik Kovacevic's ambition is to prove his worth at his new job and therefore willing to do what it takes to please his superiors and secure a bigger promotion. 

The novel is very entertaining, gripping and fast paced with laugh-out loud moments (my favourite was to do with Nik, chefs and pickles). My only wish was that it were longer. However, I have no doubt that 'Invitation to Die' will instigate many a discussion around the blogger vs author relationship, which if the retort is anything to go by can be quite fiery and challenging. Helen Smith has conjured up an imaginary scenario where she has tried for the sake of fairness to include representations of various characters from the literary world (writers, bloggers, publishers, etc) - hence the diverse and long list of characters - offering up an insight to what they might say or do when they have to spend an entire weekend together (it gave me the feeling of being a fly on the wall). But the story has a major advantage in the parts where it deals with why people write what they write (be it books or blogs), rituals of writing (Archie) and how to clear the mind for the creative process (Zena). There are lessons to be learnt there people. 

Judgements, accusations, secrets and lies abound and yet this is one conference I'd love to attend provided I (the blogger) may be allowed to live to tell my tale.

Helen Smith is an English novelist and dramatist. She's a member of the Writers' Guild of Great Britain, English PEN and the Society of Authors. She lives in London. Check out her website 'The Emperor's Clothes' HERE.

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