The body in the library may be one of the oldest cosy cliches in the book, but in his latest Don Packham and Frank Mitchell mystery, Mat Coward uses it as the jumping off point to explore the eccentric local politics of England in this amusing, witty mystery.
The strength of Coward's book as with his previous books in the series is the relationship between his leads. Don Packham and Frank Mitchell have an excellent partnership, professionally and personally that lends an air of camarderie to proceedings. One thing this reviewer always looks for in a book is good character work and Coward knows how to write endearingly likeable characters. The surrounding and incidental characters feel textured and real, and this is one of Coward's great skills; he knows how to write people. Of course, he doesn't do explicit darkness and perhaps once or twice there is the feeling that this book could have gone somewhere else, but that generally isn't the point of the Don and Frank mysteries. They're quintisentially British whodunnits written with style and aplomb. They're not dark, they're rarely explicitly violent and they're often very, very funny. Its a gentle tickle that Coward gives you, but its very welcome indeed.
We commented on Coward's previous book, Over and Under, that there was a feeling the whole affair was a little light, perhaps missing a substance that could have added something more to the book. Here, one senses a little more going on beneath the surface, perhaps influenced a little by the author's own political leanings. The local politics that lie at the heart of the mystery and the concern over the fate of such social institutions as the public library are clearly concerns at the forefront of Coward's thought. But as a whodunnit, the book can't afford to get too bogged down in such things, but the sprinkling of political thought and idea throughout the narrative add a bit more weight to proceedings and occasionally betray Coward's more socialist ideals.
On the whole, however, Open and Closed is a fun, airy whodunnit with a typically cheeky sense of humour and two endearing, charming lead characters. Its a world removed from our typical reading at Crime Scene Scotland, but Coward's infectious sense of fun and his clear, flowing prose make this a fun, divertingly entertaining and pleasant read. Which, when you immerse yourself in darkness so often, as we tend to in our reading habits at Crime Scene Scotland, occasionally makes a welcome change.
Russel McLean for Crime Scene Scotland, March 11 2005