It’s pure madness that people are still moving to picturesque country villages in search of rest and relaxation when they or someone they know is far more likely to be murdered and/or accused of murder. At least, that’s what cosy crime fiction will lead you to believe. For her part, Tess Feather is clearly no fan of the genre as, in Penny Blackwell’s The Cherrywood Murders, she has left London and returned to the Yorkshire village of Cherrywood, the pleasant backwater where she grew up, to recoup and regroup following a messy breakup and career implosion.

Alongside pulling pints in the local pub and taking to the stage as a Cher impersonator, Tess distracts herself from the troubles of the recent past by hanging out with childhood friends Raven Walton-Lord and Oliver Maynard. Raven is the heir to the local manor house and Oliver is the local vicar, and the former has managed to persuade Tess to attend the Cherrywood Women’s Guild. So far so wholesome, provided you ignore all the drinking.

However, the brutal murder of septuagenarian former primary teacher Clemmie Ackroyd soon proves that Cherrywood would not be out of place in Midsomer County.

Although the police quickly identify a suspect in the form of local scallywag Terry Braithwaite, Tess and the rest of the villagers find it hard to believe that he’s a murderer. In fact, they find it hard to believe that anyone would want to kill Clemmie. For Tess, interest in the murder shifts from idle pub gossip to a full-blown amateur investigation when a face from her past makes an unwelcome appearance in Cherrywood.

The Cherrywood Murders is the riotous start to a new cosy mystery series featuring Tess Feather and her eclectic group of friends and neighbours. The village itself is just the kind of quintessentially British rural setting that seems to be crying out for a murder. From the country pub – styled as Ye Olde Traditionale Englishe Pube – to the home for inebriated gentlefolk to the Women’s Guild, all the staples of genteel rural life are present.

Of course, as Miss Marple famously noted, “The things that go on in a pure peaceful village would probably surprise you.” And even she would likely be shocked by the happenings in the boiler room of the village hall.

In fact, the picturesque and outwardly respectable village forms the backdrop to various twisted secrets, simmering resentments and peculiar peccadillos. Some are related to the murder of Clemmie Ackroyd, some are not. All add deranged and/or amusing local colour to the story. There’s plenty for Tess to unpick as she considers who would have reason to kill Clemmie, which is a good sign of nefarious things to come in the series.

Tess herself is an enthusiastic if not always dedicated amateur sleuth. Aside from being a keen Murder, She Wrote fan, she has an ear for gossip and an eye for suspicious behaviour. Having grown up in Cherrywood, she is initially sceptical that any of her neighbours could be a murderer, although she commits to the investigation with gusto when the visiting Londoner throws down the challenge.

Prior to solving the murder, she comes very close to discovering important clues on a couple of occasions but stops short of actually doing so. Given that she is keen to unmask Clemmie’s killer, this is a rather unlikely aspect of the story. No fan of Murder, She Wrote would casually agree to meet with a key witness to discuss their discovery concerning a murderer at a later point when they could instead discuss it immediately – that’s just asking for trouble.

Otherwise, Tess’s investigation involves a goodly amount of twists and turns, and it’s a lot of fun to follow her progress. There are also some surprisingly dark aspects to the story, which add extra moments of tension and danger as Tess edges closer to discovering the motive for the killing and the identity of the killer. Penny Blackwell handles the dramatic shifts in tone from the funny/light aspects of the investigation to the dark/disturbing aspects particularly well.

The village setting means that Tess is faced with the classic closed circle of suspects. Unfortunately, most of them are life-long friends or acquaintances. Still, the limited pool of people with the means and opportunity to murder Clemmie allows her tackle each of the suspects in turn, revealing plenty of skeletons in plenty of cupboards as she does so. Slowing down the speed with which she is able to identify an even smaller pool of suspects may have rendered things more puzzling, but there are still a good number of threads to unravel.

The Cherrywood Murders is a witty and intriguing cosy mystery. There are plenty of laughs and warm-hearted moments throughout the story, but there are also numerous secrets and lies and even a spot of deadly danger. Tess Feather’s first murder investigation is a satisfyingly complex one, and it’ll be interesting to see what her next case has in store.

Also see Richard Coles’ Murder Before Evensong and Leigh Russell’s Barking Up the Right Tree.

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CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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