Disclosure: I obtained the Kindle edition of this book when it was offered free. I do not know the author nor have I ever had any communication with her about this book or any other issue. I am an author of historical romances, romantic suspense, and non-fiction.
This was one of several books I had set aside as possibles for the various mystery squares on the Bingo card. Although it could have fit a couple of different squares, I selected to use it for the Amateur Sleuth space.
If this book wasn't author-published, it feels as though it was. Wisheart Press, listed as publisher, only has two authors: H. Y. Hanna and Penelope Swan. Amazon has a profile for Hanna, but none for Swan. Since the first of Swan's Austen-based "Dark Darcy" mysteries is currently free for Kindle, I'll take a look at it and see if there's any information linking the two authors.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Penelope Swan is the pen name of award-winning mystery author, H.Y. Hanna. She has been an avid Jane Austen fan since her teens and is delighted that she can now live out her Regency fantasies through her books.
Swan, Penelope. The Netherfield Affair ~ A Pride and Prejudice Variation: (A romantic Regency mystery for Jane Austen fans) (Dark Darcy Mysteries Book 1) (p. 183). Wisheart Press. Kindle Edition.
Let us therefore presume that Hanna's -- and Swan's -- books are published by the author.
There is much about A Scone to Die For to recommend it. The plot is straightforward: Obnoxious American tourist wreaks havoc in quaint English tearoom in quaint village near Oxford, then said obnoxious tourist turns up very dead in the tearoom's environs. The negative effect on the tearoom's business has its owner, Gemma Rose, fearful that her new venture will not survive. Unsatisfied with the official investigation, she takes her own steps to solve the murder and resuscitate her failing enterprise.
Unfortunately, there is much about the book that could have been improved with judicious editing.
Yes, dear reader, I understand that H. Y. Hanna is an award-winning, best-selling author. Yes, dear reader, I understand that her books are #1 best sellers on Amazon.
No, dear reader, that doesn't mean I think they're necessarily well-written.
As an American reader, I love traveling vicariously through books. Description that allows me to feel as if I am in the location where the events take place is therefore absolutely essential to my enjoyment of books set in foreign-to-me locales. That kind of atmosphere was totally lacking in this book. Although the Little Stables Tearoom is described as being housed in a 15th century Tudor building that apparently had at one time been a coaching inn, the small details that would have made this setting come alive were never developed. Gemma turns on lights, but author Hanna never tells what those light fixtures are like, whether they maintain the sense of the Tudor period or are a glaring anachronism. What are the furnishings like? Even the kitchen? I wanted to be there, but I never was.
The same held true throughout the book for the Cotswold countryside and the Oxford campus. There just wasn't enough description.
For example, Gemma lives with her parents in the suburb of North Oxford and rides her bicycle from there to the tearoom in the village of Meadowford-on-Smythe. I never got a clear impression of how far the distance was or what kind of landscape the road wound through. This kind of description would have gone a long way (pun of course intended) to setting the scene, at least for me.
(I will have to go back and look at one of Martha Grimes' mysteries, which are set in a similar type of location, to see how she does it. When reading her books, I never felt as though I had no sense of place.)
It's not as though Hanna doesn't give plenty of description; it's just not the right kind. The first 25% (or more, based on the last 15+% being previews and promos) of the book is essentially backstory, most of which is unnecessary at this point in the tale. We learn that she's an Oxford graduate, that she spent eight years in Australia in a high-powered corporate job, that she suddenly chose to chuck it all and return to England to run this tearoom. As narrator, Gemma goes into detail about the cook's cat, Muesli, who has got loose in the tearoom in violation of health department regulations. She introduces the reader in detail to the four elderly ladies, the "Old Biddies," who have become regular patrons. She gives us background on the chef, Fletcher, and on her assistant and childhood friend Cassie.
What she hasn't done is make me care about any of these people.
There's no tension or stress going on, and there's nothing happening that arouses my curiosity. Even when the obnoxious American arrives, I just don't care. He's a total jerk, with no apparent redeeming qualities, and the blurb of the book makes it clear that he's about to be bumped off by a person or persons unknown. He's so thoroughly obnoxious that I have no sympathy for him and no anxiety about his impending doom.
Sure enough, the next morning Gemma finds him scone-cold[sic] dead just outside the tearoom, but this happens so late in the book that, well, I've already been bored to death. Pun again intended.
Before that happens, however, there's more exposition, as Gemma goes home to have dinner with her parents. Her father is a semi-retired Oxford don, her mother . . . is something else.
Throughout the book, Mrs. Rose pesters Gemma frequently about computer/internet issues, in particular her iPad to which she cannot remember the password. No matter how often Gemma reminds her that the first letter of the password must be capitalized, she forgets this detail. It might have been humorous the first time, or even the second, but after that it just made the woman look stupid.
On top of being stupid, Mrs. Rose -- she has a first name, but I've forgotten it and don't feel like looking it up -- is a meddling matchmaker whose attitude toward her daughter is straight out of the 1950s. She considers the tearoom venture unsuitable and constantly wants Gemma married. She begins by trying to start a relationship between Gemma and a boy she grew up with who is now a local physician, Dr. Lincoln Green.
Gemma's degree is in English Language and Literature. I can't imagine that she would not know the historical meaning of "Lincoln green" and its association with the Robin Hood legends. It's bad enough that author Hanna used the name, but it's a fatal wound to my willing suspension of disbelief that character Gemma Rose doesn't comment on the name.
I should note here that I went to school with David Crockett and Elizabeth Taylor. Betty Taylor was at one time married to Dean Martin. So yes, dear reader, I know that parents do give their children names that might be, um, awkward. But I also know that the people around them frequently remark about that awkwardness. I even get teased just about my last name! "Any relation to Paris?" I am asked. I sneer and say, "No."
Character names are important; so are place names. "Meadowford-on-Smythe" is slightly problematic. Not enough to pull me completely out of the story, but it certainly didn't add anything positive to the experience.
Gemma has also gone to a local pub, similarly situated in one of those 15th century Tudor buildings. Nitpicky detail? The Tudors didn't come to the throne until the very tail end of the 15th century in 1485. The style that bears their name, however, both predates them and survives them. I would have preferred Gemma give more of the historical background of her tearoom's location than just a flat label, because this would have helped to establish her character as someone who has studied English language and literature and would most likely have at least some background in the pertinent English history, too.
These are just a few examples of how Hanna fails to develop the atmosphere of the English cozy mystery that I expected when I began to read this. Now, it's very possible that the genre has changed and even changed dramatically since I first read Martha Grimes 30 years ago, but this review is after all my personal opinion.
Could a good editor, or even a good set of beta readers -- Hanna thanks hers at the end of the book -- have improved this? I think so.
I also think a good editor could have fleshed out Hanna's stereotyped, cardboard characters, from the TSTL mother to the bitter unemployed bruiser in the pub to the obnoxious American to the suave detective . . . and to Gemma's eye-rollingly immature reaction to said suave detective.
A good editor might also have fixed the flat-out errors -- those Richard Collier pennies -- that just plain yanked me out of the story altogether.
The book opens with Gemma as narrator setting the date and day as a Saturday in late October. On page 123 (35%), Hanna sets the murder as happening on Sunday morning, after the American, Brad Washington, had made a scene at the tearoom on that Saturday afternoon and later at the local pub that evening. On page 135 (37%), however, the suave detective states:
“We know Washington arrived in the country via Heathrow last Thursday—the day before he came to your tearoom.”
Hanna, H.Y.. A Scone To Die For (Oxford Tearoom Mysteries ~ Book 1) (p. 135). Wisheart Press. Kindle Edition.
Given that details of days and dates and even times are crucial to murder mysteries, I was thrown out of the world of the story and scrambling to verify what I had read.
When the tearoom was forced by the murder investigation to close for two days, Gemma makes the remark (p. 76) that "weekends are our busiest times!" I had taken that to mean she was lamenting being closed on both Saturday and Sunday, not Sunday and Monday, since Monday isn't part of the weekend and the place had been open for business all day Saturday. I was confused.
I was further confused when, on what was apparently Monday, one of the suspects offers that her alibi had been her attendance at a yoga class on the morning of the murder. A yoga class early on Sunday morning? Am I just out of it and this is a normal thing in Oxford? There was more that was questionable about that suspect, such as
why was she attending the book club meeting at Mrs. Rose's home? Was the book club meeting an advertised public event? Had another member invited her as a guest? How the hell did she get in if she wasn't invited and it wasn't public?
The more I read, the more I was pulling back from immersion in the story.
Once I'd backed out, more problems seemed to take on added importance.
Gemma supposedly had a high-powered executive job in Australia for the better part of eight years, from the time of her graduation from Oxford to her return to purchase Little Stables Tearoom. She never comes across as an executive type. Or even a take-charge type. Her hiring of Fletcher as cook (chef?) and Cassie as . . . whatever it is Cassie is . . . seems more comfortable reliance on old connections than executive decisions. Her impulsive actions toward solving the mystery on her own seems more driven by emotions than by good professional sense. She became less and less believable as what she was supposed to be.
She also didn't seem to be the child of a middle class academic upbringing. Her parents come across more as befuddled 1960s parents who were still lost in the 1940s than as 2000s parents lost in the 1950s. Gemma's voice is too casual; for a student of English Language and Literature, she makes one particular grammatical error that set my teeth on edge.
I knew that they were separated and she wasn’t even living in the same country as him,
Hanna, H.Y.. A Scone To Die For (Oxford Tearoom Mysteries ~ Book 1) (p. 143). Wisheart Press. Kindle Edition.
I would have been able to forgive Hanna's misspelling
but I had a feeling that it didn’t include classic grey suits from Saville Row, Italian silk ties, and stylish leather brogues.
Hanna, H.Y.. A Scone To Die For (Oxford Tearoom Mysteries ~ Book 1) (p. 69). Wisheart Press. Kindle Edition.
but not her character's use of the wrong pronoun case.
The book itself is clean of ordinary typos, which is terrific. Given the other problems I was having with the narrative, typos would have forced me to quit early on. "Savile Row" isn't used again and the double L might have been an innocent typing error. But what about these, both on the same page?
The phone slipped from my hands and fell with a resounding plop! into the toilet bowel.
Hanna, H.Y.. A Scone To Die For (Oxford Tearoom Mysteries ~ Book 1) (p. 280). Wisheart Press. Kindle Edition.
I knelt down next to the toilet bowel and reached my arm in.
Hanna, H.Y.. A Scone To Die For (Oxford Tearoom Mysteries ~ Book 1) (p. 280). Wisheart Press. Kindle Edition.
I point out all these little details, as nitpicky as they are, because they are things a decent editor would more than likely have caught and fixed, to the great improvement of the reader's experience. They didn't really affect the mystery at all, or at least not to such an extent that simple changes wouldn't have fixed them.
Two things, however, were not so minor, and they diminished the quality of the amateur-sleuth mystery significantly. And both are major spoilers.
Gemma has more or less decided that Justine Smith is not, after all, a serious suspect, but there is still some doubt in her mind, especially since she has seen Justine in the company of the dashing detective in his Savile Row suits for whom Gemma has the hots. Even so, Gemma accepts an invitation to meet Justine at a remote, isolated location for a conversation. Gemma becomes TSTL at this point, but so does Hanna, because she establishes no logical reason for Justine to request such a meeting. It's not even a red herring; it's just stupid drama for the sake of drama.
Could a little bit of editing have fixed that? Well, maybe. Maybe Justine could have justified her request, but I'm not sure how. And Gemma's inability to let anyone know what she's doing and where she's going just comes across as excessively contrived.
But I'm not sure how the other error would have been easily fixed.
Suspected murderer Dr. Hughes creates an alibi and has it confirmed by one of his students. What Gemma figures out, however, is that the student never saw Hughes, but only heard his voice. It wasn't Hughes himself speaking, but the recording on his answering machine. Hughes wasn't there. But if Hughes wasn't there, how did he know Tom Rawlings, the student, came to his rooms? How did he know to get Tom Rawlings to confirm the alibi?
Maybe the books get better later in the series, but I'm not inclined to pursue them. Yes, dear reader, I know they're popular. I know they have hundreds of five-star ratings. Puh-lease. . . .
Oh, and by the way. Hanna's excessive reliance on... and --- drove me crazy. Nitpicky, I know. I know . . . .