PATRICIA HARWIN – Arson and Old Lace. Pocket, paperback original; 1st printing, Feb 2004.

PATRICIA HARWIN Arson and Old Lace

   Oh, why not. I’m going to quote all of the first two paragraphs. Telling her own story is Catherine Penny:

   I pulled the car in close to the hedgerow and turned the key, and that amazing silence came down. It was the silence I had been waiting for more than a year, since my husband had left me, since I’d decided my only hope of peace lay in the ancient rhythms of an English village.

   I used to wake in our apartment on West Eighty-third and listen for that silence through Manhattan’s background hum. Keeping by long habit to my side of the bed, I would see behind closed eyelids the narrow country road and the old cottages with roses in bloom on their walls, as they had been when Quin and I had first come to Far Wychwood.

   I submit to you that there are few mystery novels that summarize their mood, their setting, and one of the characters as quickly as this. Catherine is in her sixties, a recent grandmother — her daughter and her husband live not too far away, near Oxford — and as you’ve gathered, newly divorced.

   There are challenges for everyone in this world, but packing up and moving across the ocean by yourself, leaving your previous life behind, is not one that most people would voluntarily undertake. Across the road, Catherine has a neighbor, an ill-tempered old man who loves alone, nearly incapable of caring for himself, and considered dishonest by the surrounding townspeople. And thereby lies the tale.

   When old George’s house burns down, it is Catherine who hears his dying words. And when a body is found in the churchyard next to a huge ornamental cross, who is nearby? Catherine again.

   This is the first of a series, and for the most part, it starts off on the right foot, especially when it focuses on Catherine’s life: her struggles with her daughter, who has her own views of raising children; her attempts, largely successful, to make friends with her new neighbors; her bouts of nostalgia with a marriage that was so happy and then so suddenly wasn’t.

   Not so successful is the mystery itself, as elements of the plot so obvious to the many-times-over detective fiction reader go flitting over the heads of the people in Catherine’s close circle of new friends, which includes the local constabulary, Detective Sergeant John Bennett. (Not a love interest. He’s happily married.)

   That it slips Catherine’s mind to tell Sgt. Bennett everything she knows causes considerable problems as well. Red herrings and false trails abound, but if you stay with the obvious, you’ll be headed in the right direction. You won’t know all — the pieces don’t go together that easily — but you’ll be idling your thumbs for a bit while the story catches up.

   And Catherine Penny, prone as she is to rash and impulsive behavior, is a bit of fascination in herself. It’s too bad that we’ll have to wait until Fall of 2005 for a return visit, scheduled to be told in Slaying Is Such Sweet Sorrow.

— September 2004

[UPDATE] 10-15-13. Unfortunately, as it turns out, there were only the two books in the series. 2005 was about the time (as I recall) that Pocket cut way back on “genre” fiction: mysteries, science fiction and westerns — one large implosion and they were all gone — and that may have been one of the reasons that Catherine Penny had only the two cases on record.