(creator: Veronica Heley)
|Ellie Quicke is a recently widowed middle-aged English woman, aged fifty when we first meet her, who lives in Ealing in West London in a semi-detached house and gardens that face St Thomas', a pretty Victorian Gothic church where, despite the fact that her husband Frank had "always said I couldn't hold a tune to save my life," she is persuaded to join the choir. She is a "pillar of the church" and reliable coffee-maker - except when her detective work intervenes. She "was neither tall nor particularly slender, and at fifty-plus no model agency would have looked at her, despite the fact that her short curly hair had turned a most attractive silver and she had good skin."
Her retired husband Frank, with whom she had sometimes had a rather difficult relationship and who had "made all the decisions for both of us", had died just before the start of the first book. He had left her "comparatively wealthy" (with over one and a half million pounds). They had one daughter, Diana, who gets more and more demanding and is a constant cause of concern to her mother. They had had a hard time bringing her up. At first they had had to scrimp and save to support Frank's Aunt Drusilla. Then Ellie had had five miscarriages.
She makes a shrewd but friendly investigator who is "usually right about people". As her local vicar, whom she subsequently marries, tells her, "Your practical Christian loving-kindness shines through". Described as Ellie the Peacemaker, she "could always be relied upon to do all the jobs that nobody else wanted to do". She explains that her success in solving crimes was achieved "by chance, by asking around in the neighbourhood and occasionally being able to put two and two together." She makes a strong and interesting character.
Veronica Heley (1933 - ) is married to a retired probation officer and has a musician daughter who has long since left home. She is actively involved in her local church and community affairs in Ealing, West London. She explains that some people accuse her "of ‘being’ Ellie Quicke, who is prematurely silver-haired, never learned to drive, and is still rather unsure of herself". She is a full-time writer who has published over 64 books. Her output includes twenty books for children.
Ellie has problems of her own too, mainly centred around her selfish and demanding daughter Diana who puts Ellie's house on the market without even telling her and announces,"You can't stay on here, and that's flat. Stewart (Diana's husband) and I discussed it at length after the funeral. You've never lived alone and can't be expected to cope now. We've found a nice little one bedroomed flat for you, fully furnished and at a reasonable rate .... As for your furniture, well, if there's anything small that you particularly want to keep, I daresay that will be all right. Stewart and I will have Grandad's bureau, of course ..."
There is also her late husband's equally demanding Aunt Drusilla who keeps phoning her with imperious instructions: "There's a nasty smell in the larder. That woman of mine never does it properly. At least you can be trusted to use some disinfectant on the job."
Ellie is nothing if not observant, as when she who demands to see the identification papers of a man who claims to work for the gas board and is trying to get into her house to check out a non-existent gas leak.
It is not always entirely convincing (as when Ellie and her neighbour are nearly blown up by a booby-trapped car, or when Ellie knocks out an intruder with a frying pan). But it is entertaining and easy to read.
Murder by Suicide (2002)
It all starts by being both realistic and interesting, but then Diana gets so upleasant to her mother that it begins to pass belief: she bullies her remorsessly, even reorganising her house without her agreement, throws out her mother's vital papers as well as some of her old kitchen utensils, and moves her furniture out of her bedroom so that she and her husband can use it. She also aggressively questions her mother's suitors as to their intentions! The final straw comes when she holds a wild party in her mother's house, so that even Ellie can put up with it no more.
Ellie finds that "Praying helped. Offering up a voice in the choir helped, too. She would survive." And so, of course, she does. What with the pressing demands of Diana, and Roy, and other potential suitors, she has a busy time of things, and all this is described in an amusing way. In fact, it gets quite farcical at times, what with her doorbell constantly ringing and potential suitors finding themselves almost piling on top of each other. The plot, though, turns out to be quite slight, and eventually struggles to hold the interest.
We get brief descriptions of the poison-pen writer(s) at work inserted in italics, a device that works quite well here, but gets less effective when repeated in later books. Then Ellie is sent a "wax effigy of a woman clad in blue with a silvery thatch on her head. A long pin secured a drawing of a crab onto its torso. A crowd meant cancer, didn't it? Someone hated her enough to wish her dead of cancer." So Ellie hurries off to have a blood test to convince herself that she has not really got it. And as a result, she almost gets murdered by a mad woman. This conclusion seems quite over the top and altogether too melodramatic. It just does not fit in with the author's cosy story-telling style.
Murder of Innocence (2003)
It makes a gripping story, and Ellie herself, often feeling beleaguered on all sides, attracts the reader's sympathy and understanding. It is full of surprises too, although some of them like the melodramatic finale, or the way that police and social services seems so little involved with Tod's immediate welfare, or the way that he is kidnapped twice, are hard to believe. As is the way that Ellie tracks down the attacker simply by visiting a series of local stamp collectors, eliminating from her suspect list the ones that seem to have children in the house.
But there are some really entertaining incidents as when Ellie withstands her aggressive daughter Diana's plan to move into her house, vanquishes her determined attempt to impose a bullying "carer" on old aunt Drusilla, and questions whether Frank, her late husband, had really ever promised to leave a million pounds, as the church treasurer claims, to build a new church hall.
Ellie herself seems very real, as when she "began to weep ... and weep ... She was so angry with Frank for dying and leaving her. She wanted to scream with rage. And loss. He left a great big black hole in her life. Every now and then she dived into that hole, pulled the covers over her head and let herself go. He should have taken more care of himself. He should have listened to her, had check-ups regularly. It served him right that she wasn't going to build a hall to perpetuate his name ... If she'd known he was squirreling away all that money, she'd have suggested they spent some of it on themselves for a change. Perhaps a world cruise. She would quite like to see New Zealand, where she had a cousin. Bother Frank! Oh, how could he go and leave her?"
When her admirer Roy tells her that she can't possibly allow Gus, the homeless alcoholic, to remain in her house, she replies, "You sound just like my dear dead husband."
Murder by Accident (2003)
Drusilla herself is, despite her apparent death, still "extremely intelligent". "You had to get up very early in the morning to cheat (her) and get away with it. Diana had never been that good at getting up in the morning." It is this sort of gentle humour that runs throughout the story and makes it all so easy to read, as long as you don't try and take the plot too seriously.
We get frequent interruptions (in italics) from the unidentified (crooks), and, as a literary device this gets increasingly tedious. But there are some really amusing incidents as when one of two questioning police officers repeatedly addresses Drusilla as "Dearie" until he is firmly put in its place.
Ellie herself continues to develop as a character. As her friend Kate tells her, "Over the last six months you have changed a lot. You've stopped being a downtrodden housewife who thinks men always know best, and become a personage in your own right." Encouraged by the portly new vicar, whose nickname Tum-Tum has quickly spread throughout the parish, she slips into church to pray, but finds that she cannot stop thinking about the case in hand. "I should be praying ..." she thought. "Then relaxed. 'What was the use? If Jesus was here, He knew all about it and would forgive her wandering mind .... Ellie eased herself to her feet, and looked up at the cross on the altar."
The climax, in which Ellie confronts a gang of hooligans, is the least convincing part of the plot. It provides too glib and cosy an ending to a generally entertaining story.
Murder in the Garden (2004)
Ellie herself is an engaging character, and the author gets the old-fashioned neighbourly Anglican background just right. Characters, like the local vicar, Thomas, "known to his intimates as Tum-Tum because of his rounded figure" are described with real affection. It is he who "knew what she needed better than she did" and gave her the key to the church so that she could slip in to pray, although "She didn't know what to pray about in the present situation. God knew all about it, of course."
The battle between her aggressive daughter and indomitable Aunt Drusilla really comes to life when her daughter gate-crashes a party and Drusilla, the hostess, tries to put her in her place by deliberately down-grading her, providing her with poor fare, just served on kitchen plates. Diana has a young toddler called Frankie, and it is Ellie, of course, who was often left to look after him. All this is vividly described.
Ellie cannot approve of the sort of life her daughter has led and does not hesitate in telling her so: "You do worry me, Diana. A self-centred life is no recipe for contentment."
It is not even twelve months since Frank had died, but this is already the fourth case that Ellie has had to investigate. She still has two male admirers - but a new marriage is still far from her thoughts. So far. It makes a light-weight story, but is all very chatty and undemanding.
Murder by Committee (2005)
Unfortunately, characters like the business tycoon, his downtrodden wife, and his thug Marco, emerge as little more than caricatures, and when the wife goes to live with Ellie, and the business tycoon falls in love with the scheming Diana, the story gets even more unlikely. Tum-Tum, the vicar, is an impressive figure, experienced, wise and ever-encouraging (so much so that Ellie decides to call him Thomas) - but perhaps a little too good to be true. As is the ever-faithful Rose, Ellie's friend and enthusiastic cook and housekeeper to Aunt Drusilla.
Ellie herself is becoming ever more resourceful since she "had discovered the truth in the old adage that if you stood up to a bully, they caved in. Her aged aunt Drisilla had responded well to this treatment and Ellie was now fond of the once-dreaded old dear. Ellie's daughter Diana was a tougher proposition than Aunt Drusilla, and Ellie couldn't claim that she'd fully mastered the art of dealing with her." So she is quite prepared to stand up to the rude Sir Arthur: "You remind me of Pooh-Bah, or Lord High Everything, a character invented by W.S. Gilbert. You probably don't know The Mikado, though I expect your mother taught you manners when you were a child."
There's a lively confrontation too when Ellie summons up her courage to confront the chairman at a church meeting to reveal that Sir Arthur was intending to build six luxurious apartments that would make him a fortune on the site of the old vicarage, and gets his plans delayed. It makes you want to stand up and cheer.
However the slow moving plot and general lack of excitement make this one of the least interesting books in the series. The treatment is altogether too gossipy, and the feud between two rival tycoons does not provide a strong enough story to hold the interest. In the end it all fizzles out.
Murder by Bicycle (2006)
The unlikely plot is not helped along by frequent interjections from the real poisoner. These passages in italics are much longer than in previous books and provide much more information, but their melodramatic style fits in uneasily with the gossipy tone of the rest of the narrative. And by revealing the poisoner's identity early on, the author really gives away her trump card. She is at her best with light-hearted descriptions of family and friend relationships, and her attempted portrayal of a murderous madwoman totally lacks conviction.
She is particularly fond of incidents in which Ellie, hoping for a bit of peace and quiet, is, as in previous books, invaded by visitor after visitor, all piling in one after another. And she obviously enjoys describing Ellie's "romances", as with Bill Weatherspoon, her "longtime friend and family solicitor, monkey-faced and slightly old-fashioned", who proposes to her. She "liked him enormously" but when he comes to call for her, she is a few minutes late: "He welcomed the peck on the cheek that she gave him, but was clearly annoyed that she'd kept him waiting.
Then there was the popular Thomas, the portly local vicar, who embraces her when she needs comforting, and of whom she was "extremely, warmly fond". And there's her cousin Roy - but he has now fallen in love with a young widow, another friend of Ellie's.
Ellie is at her best when it comes to understanding people, as in the passage when Bill tells her: "I phoned my daughters last night and broke the news to them that I had proposed to you, and that you hadn't turned me down outright .... I think they were rather surprised that their doddering old father was thinking of getting married again ..."
But you get the feeling that the author is running out of new ideas, and indeed she even repeats herself as when we are twice told (in italics, of course) about the murderer arranging the "suicide" of her husband, using exhaust fumes in a garage, so needing to find another method of disposing of her next victim! And the plots get increasingly absurd.
Murder of Identity (2007)
It all gets increasingly predictable. Once again, italics are used to tell us what the unconvincing villain is thinking (he even talks about his "cash flow problem"); Diana is still busily erecting For Sale signs outside Ellie's house; Ellie is prevented from attending an important function, in this case a wedding, by an insistent phone call from Diana demanding her immediate help; and five-year-old Frank is again dumped at Ellie's for her to look after. Then there are the usual arguing relations, all conspiring to get their hands on some old person's wealth. So it is very much the mixture as before.
It is Diana who, finding Thomas the vicar consoling her upset mother, tells her, "I thought that clergy weren't supposed to cuddle their parishioners. It lays them open to all sorts of gossip."
Then later on, after Thomas has been up all night with a friend dying of cancer, Ellie wonders what to feed him: "She'd give him scrambled, not fried eggs: better for his digestion. Bacon, a couple of sausages which she'd been saving for her lunch today, mushrooms ... bother, there were no tomatoes. She could have some of the scrambled eggs herself. Double quantity of sliced bread into the toaster. Butter, spreadable. Marmalade, home-made. Or would he prefer jam or honey? He could have marmalade and lump it. Tea or coffee, that was the question. Usually he drank strong dark tea with milk and sugar, but coffee might be better in view of the state that he was in. But she couldn't find any good ground coffee, though she was sure she'd bought some couple of days back. Tea would have to do." And so it goes on, sheering away from a mention of cancer to something much more cosy.
Eventually Thomas is left snoring in a big armchair. "Mercy me," said Ellie to herself. "What a turn-up for the books. Who'd believe we weren't having serious nooky, if they saw him now? Well, I don't care. I like the fact that he came to me to help." It is at this gossipy sort of level that the author seems happiest.
The story, despite the addition of a few more corpses and a violent attack on Ellie, still lacks any real sense of excitement. The not very convincing police still refuse to take Ellie seriously, and are determined to take the easy way out and blame everything on Neil. As she sees it, "The only person who seemed to care was one silly middle-aged woman (herself) with a bad habit of poking her nose in when it wasn't wanted. Well, the silly middle aged woman might not be brilliant, but she could at least do something to help." And so she does, and more by good luck than management, once again identifies the murderer.
However, as the author puts it, after Ellie herself has been sent flying through the air in a vicious attack, "It was unreal. Ellie couldn't make sense of what was happening." You can't blame her.
Murder in the Park (2007)
Ellie herself comes to life as a real person: "Fiftyish and prematurely silver-haired, she (had) discovered the pleasures of independence, made some good friends, and once or twice even stood up to her dreadful daughter Diana." And we really get involved in the lingering death of Aunt Drusilla. "No tears, by request," she tells Ellie, remaining resolute to the end.
Thomas comes across as a very real, caring and compassionate priest, so it's very pleasing when Ellie eventually gets round to proposing to him! Less interesting are the basic plot, and the passages in italics tagged on to the end of chapters telling us what the villainous murderous teenager is up to. The plot is unlikely, to put it mildly, and it is only by chance, and not by detection, that Ellie eventually identifies the criminal.
It is hard to believe that the policeman, whom Ellie had previously christened Ears because of the way his ears stuck out, would start a conversation with her, just after her house had caught fire, with "Well, well, has Ellie been a naughty little girl, then?" And then he goes on to bully her: "What I think is that you have committed a particularly nasty crime, and I'm on your trail. I'm not going to let you get away with it, understand? I think you set fire to your own home because you needed the money from the insurance .... You had a confederate, didn't you? To give you an alibi?" It is all too absurd, as is the melodramatic but "happy" ending.
The very last pararaphs in the book suggest what the author really likes writing about: Thomas tells her,"You are one very independent, capable woman, Ellie Quicke."
The interplay of human relationships, particularly those between Ellie and her friends, including her Aunt Drusilla and her live-in companion Rose, make this an interesting book to read, and you cannot help but feel involved in Ellie's constant struggle to ward off her scheming daughter's desperate attempts to get her own way. So, all in all, it is one of the better books in the series.
Murder in House (2009)
Ellie, despite her happy marriage, sounds rather less tolerant and well balanced than in previous books. She still helps people, but she describes one of them as "a stick insect" and there was another that "irritated her profoundly" and of whom a little "went a long way".
Sometimes Ellie sounds as though she might be voicing the author's own thoughts, as when she complains about the iPhone that Diana had surprisingly given her at Christmas. It was "a grand new, all-speaking, all-dancing mobile", but Ellie "was frightened silly by the new instrument, which was sleek and slender and would show you television programmes and doubtless also put you in touch with the stars, if you so wished. There were so many functions on it that you needed a degree in further mathematics even to turn it on. ... Ellie didn't see the point of owning a gadget which was a lot cleverer than she was."
The old business about Diana managing to get hold of the keys to her house is repeated yet again. And Diana, ready to try anything or anyone, bursts her way into her house where Ellie finds her "trying to wind her legs around Thomas and in that instant she (Ellie) shed all her inhibitions, and gave way to the age-old instinct to fight for her mate. If Diana thought she could make a fool of Thomas, she had another think coming!" And so she pulled her off him.
It does not really sound too likely, nor does the way in which, after throwing Diana's belongings out into the drive, and being asked by a laughing Thomas, "Would Madam have time for some food now?", she "snatched the (food) tray from him and threw it with all her strength across the hall. Soup splashed richly across the panelling. Sandwiches flew across the floor. Plates broke. Cutlery scattered. She screamed, as loudly as she could, 'Aargh!' "
Eventually, with the help of her good friend Kate's business expertise, she identifies the master criminal, an important local councillor, and confronts him at his own party, with a local photographer flashing away as she leads Ursula in, wearing a hood which is drawn back a litle way 'revealing a face that was not hers ... a face that bore a life-size photo' of the raped girl.
In fact, the story starts well with a dramatic road accident in which both Ellie and Mia are nearly killed. Or was it more than an accident? But then there's the first of a whole series of italicised passages that appear at the end of chapters: “She should have died, the witch, the bitch. When his mobile had wrong, he hadn't expected to receive a picture of her, back in Ealing! She ought to have died. No ordinary person could have survived. But she wasn't ordinary, was she? She was a witch and ought to be burned at the stake. And so she would be. He'd see to it if no one else did." The messages get increasingly melodramatic and bizarre, but, helped by numerous hints, it's not long before we recognise who the author must be.
Several of the characters are little more than caricatures, although much can be forgiven as they are such entertaining ones. Prominent amongst them is Ellie's outrageously selfish and domineering daughter Diana who informs Ellie that she will be holding the reception for her wedding (to her highly unpleasant partner Denis) in her mother's house this coming Saturday. And she's going to send all the bills to her. Ellie points out to her that she had already arranged to host a much more modest wedding reception that same Saturday for Mia's friend, Sheila. "Well," said Diana, frowning, “I don't see that there's much of a problem. We are booked into the registry office at two in the afternoon, so we can have our reception here at five. That will give you plenty of time to clear away from the luncheon party and prepare for a sit-down meal for fifty at six. Then there'll be a disco in the evening, to which we've invited just over a hundred people.” And her mother is not even on the list of people to be invited! It's quite beyond belief.
Another entertaining character is professional Party Planner, Mr Freddie Balls, “a stately figure carrying a silver topped cane, dressed in a bright pink shirt over grey jeans, and crowned with a mass of carefully curled yellow hair. Gay as a lark.” In fact, he isn't, but helped by his two assistants whom he calls his slaves, he helps Ellie cope with the appalling problem of running two receptions one after the other.
There are dramatic incidents involving another attempt to run Ellie over, and a poisoned cake that is sent to the wedding (from which they are only saved by dramatic action from Midge the cat!), but, with the help of her ever attentive clergyman husband Thomas ("a large, bearded man who looked like a sailor, but was a respected academic" who was still editing a National Christian magazine and speaking at high-level conferences, and never had the slightest cross word for her), she identifies the murderer and helps her daughter at the same time. But, as she herself had prayed earlier, “Dear Lord, I don't understand what's going on here. It's a bit much, don't you think?” Yes it is - but it's quite amusing to read.
Murder in Mind (2012)
It is an absurd plot, told in a chatty, light-hearted sort of way, as when Ellie confesses to the reader, “There are several things a mother, however modern, does not wish to hear from a divorced, single parent daughter. 'I'm pregnant' must be top of the list. Or perhaps, 'I'm gay'? Now, there was a toss-up. Which would you prefer?"
The most unlikely characters of all are Detective Constable Milburn, who tells Ellie what is going on behind the scenes and asks her to help her to solve the case (!), and her boss Detective Inspector Big Ears, who had "sticking out ears, which turned bright red whenever he was stressed", and had been given his nickname by Ellie "when he was rude to her at their first meeting, and the nickname had stuck, which hadn't endeared her to him." We are told this on page 27 then all over again on page 124. Could the book have been written (and edited) in a bit of a hurry? Unfortunately, Big Ears is little more than a cartoon caricature who does little more than twice abruptly demand,"Which of you did it?" and is never prepared to listen to anyone. Another character who does not really come to life is Ellei's retired clergyman husband Thomas, who, we are told, is always supportive and concerned about her, but is seldom actually present.
More realistic characters include Evan's determined surviving daughter Freya, and young Mikey, a disturbed but resourceful young boy with whom Ellie manages to make contact.
Every now and then we cut away to sections in italics written by the killer who sounds very pleased with himself. But this device is not very convincing nor is the way that Ellie rescues her new protogees from a house where their lives seem to be threatened by marauding reporters (!) and sets off with them on a frantic mini-cab ride leading to a chase through an Indian restaurant and into another minicab the other side of it. Even after all this, Ellie decided that she "couldn't interrupt him (her husband Thomas) when he was working"!
It all leads up to an absurdly melodramatic ending in which the killer threatens to blow everyone up. Ellie quite rightly comments, "This wasn't either tragedy or comedy; it was farce." She remains the one convincing character - and deserves a better plot.
|There are ten books in the series, the first two of which (such as the one below) are being reprinted by Ostara Publishing in the UK in their Clerical Crime series.|
|An oddity of the Severn House hardback edition of Murder in House is its page lay-out. As seen here, there is so little margin at the foot of the page that the text appears about to slip off it. Is this a cunning plot to save paper or just an annoying design? Severn House is a publisher that specialise in small print runs of hardbacks for libraries.|