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"Chan's sprightly debut, a contemporary homage to Dorothy L. Sayer's classic Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, introduces an appealing pair of sleuths."
The Young Widow
Annette Berowne had a sweet, heart-shaped face. She had honey-blond hair and wide brown eyes. She was not beautiful, and certainly not glamorous, but only Phillip Bethancourt noticed that. Everyone else was blinded by the charm of her manner, by a certain ethereal quality mixed with an earthy femininity.
On the evening of the day that Scotland Yard was consulted in the matter of her husband’s death, Phillip Bethancourt lay in bed listening to the steady beat of the rain on the windowpanes and admiring the white, lissome form beside him. Marla Tate, one of England’s top fashion models, was dozing, passion sated, her coppery hair like a halo on the pillow, her jade-green eyes hidden behind closed lids. Her long legs were entangled with Bethancourt’s but her torso had twisted away from him, giving an excellent view of her small, perfectly shaped breasts.
A hush lay over the large bedroom, and with the waning daylight the room had grown dim, letting shadows pool in the corners. In one of them, Cerberus, Bethancourt’s large Borzoi hound, lay on his side, fast asleep, adding to the drowsy atmosphere.
Bethancourt was just reaching out a finger to touch one copper curl when he was interrupted by the faint but unmistakable chimes of the ship’s clock in the living room. It was striking the hour. It was striking six o’clock.
“Hell,” said Bethancourt softly, and his hand descended not on Marla’s hair but on her shoulder, shaking her awake.
The languid serenity of the bedroom was shattered as Marla came to full consciousness with a jerk and demanded the time while Bethancourt groped on the nightstand for his glasses, and Cerberus shot to his feet, ears pricked.
“Six o’clock,” Bethancourt answered, rolling out of bed and donning a heavy silk dressing gown. “We’re supposed to be meeting Jack at this very moment.”
“Bloody hell,” said Marla.
Detective Sergeant Jack Gibbons was ready to leave his office on time—an unusual occurrence. He sat behind his desk with his Burberry over his arm and his briefcase close to hand, waiting rather anxiously while he wondered if Bethancourt or more work would come to occupy him first.
He had changed his shirt in the men’s room and substituted a tweed jacket past its best years for the sweater he had been wearing. Still, he looked all right, he thought, examining himself in the small shaving mirror he kept in his desk for those times when he seemed hardly able to go home at all and needed some sprucing up before interviewing a witness. Reflected back at him was a man of medium height, a little stocky in build, with reddish-brown hair cut short and fierce blue eyes. He looked exactly like what he was: a young, off-duty policeman, but he managed to convince himself otherwise.
The contest between Bethancourt and work was won resoundingly when the phone rang. Gibbons glared at it, but ignoring it never entered his mind. With a sigh, he picked up the receiver.
“Stop by my office on your way out, Sergeant,” said Detective Chief Inspector Carmichael’s gravelly voice.
“Yes, sir,” replied Gibbons respectfully, masking entirely the irritation he felt. “I was just going now, sir.”
“Fine, fine. I won’t keep you long.”
Gibbons sincerely hoped not. It was not often that he left the Yard at anything approaching a reasonable hour and normally he did not begrudge it. His promotion from constable to sergeant had come swiftly, inspiring some to refer to his meteoric rise in the CID, and he wanted to make inspector in as short an order. To that end, he worked long and hard, but with nothing much on his plate at the moment, he felt he deserved a night on the town.
Detective Chief Inspector Wallace Carmichael was looking over a case file spread out across his desk when Gibbons arrived. He had lit an inferior cigar and removed his jacket and he raised bushy white eyebrows as he looked up at his sergeant, noting the change of clothes.
“Got something on tonight, then, Sergeant?” he asked.
“Yes, sir,” returned Gibbons. He liked Carmichael, who gave a man every chance to shine, and who was always fair. “Phillip Bethancourt’s giving a party tonight at the Oxford and Cambridge Club. A friend of ours has just made partner at Lincoln’s Inn.”
“Well, I won’t keep you,” said Carmichael, digging out a second file from beneath the papers scattered over his desk. “We’re starting a new case tomorrow down in Surrey. Here’s a copy of the case file for you to look over. I’m going down tomorrow morning for a briefing with the chief constable and you can meet me afterward. Say about ten-thirty.”
“Yes, sir,” said Gibbons, taking the file and stuffing it under his arm. “I’ll read it over tonight.”
“Go on, then. Enjoy your party.”
“Thank you, sir.”
When Gibbons returned to his office, he found it occupied by a tall, fair young man with horn-rimmed glasses, immaculately dressed in a silk Arman suit. He was accompanied and utterly eclipsed by a slender woman of undeniable beauty and elegance. She was perched on the edge of Gibbons’s desk in a pose reminiscent of one she had lately displayed in a well-known fashion magazine. They were both perfectly composed, neither displaying the slightest hint of the frantic half-hour of preparation that had preceded their appearance.
“There you are,” growled Gibbons. “Hello, Marla. I thought you were meeting us there.”
“Last minute change in plans,” responded Bethancourt, who was leaning comfortably back in Gibbons’s desk chair with his long legs crossed at the ankle. “Marla wanted to make sure you were coming.”
Gibbons was considerably surprised at this statement. Marla loathed her boyfriend’s detective hobby and held the view, not unreasonably, that Gibbons was largely to blame for Bethancourt’s involvement in the investigations of various violent deaths. As a result, she was usually less than eager to include Gibbons in their plans.
But she seemed perfectly happy to see him now. The false and brilliant smile that had decorated so many magazine pages flashed across her face and she leaned forward to kiss his cheek, leaving a waft of spicy perfume in her wake.
“I wanted to be sure you’d be there to meet Carol,” she said.
Bethancourt looked amused. “Marla,” he said, “has formed the idea that if you could be interested in something other than your work, she might be privy to fewer conversations about murder. I have to admit that if anything is likely to distract you from your career, Carol is certainly a good candidate.”
Marla scowled at him. “Don’t be silly. I just thought they would like each other, is all. And this seemed the perfect opportunity,” she added, turning back to Gibbons. “A party, where the two of you can get on or not as you please.”
“Well, that’s awfully kind of you,” said Gibbons, reflecting that most of the women Marla knew were models, certainly an attractive group. He picked up his briefcase and shoved the file into it. “And I’m ready to go whenever you like—I’ve just got back from saying good night to the D.C.I.”
“Then let’s be off,” said Bethancourt, rising. “The taxi is waiting downstairs.”
There was impromptu dancing after dinner and Marla was in her element. Bethancourt watched with a half-smile on his lips as Giles Porter clasped her far too tightly and waltzed her about the floor. She would expect Bethancourt to assert his rights eventually, but he had half an hour now when he might slip away unnoticed. He lit a cigarette and went off in search of Gibbons, who had disappeared some little while before.
Bethancourt found his friend in the hush of the library, drinking black coffee and poring over a file open on the table before him. No hint of the party penetrated here; all was quiet and well-ordered.
“You’re not supposed to have drinks in here,” said Bethancourt, strolling over.
Gibbons looked up. “I had more wine than I meant to at dinner,” he said, “and I’ve got to get this stuff into my head tonight.”
“I throw splendid parties,” said Bethancourt, self-satisfied. He pulled out a chair and dropped into it. “Is that the new case?”
Gibbons sat back and smiled. “How did you know there was one?” he asked.
“You came back from Carmichael’s office with a file,” answered Bethancourt, shrugging. He took a moment to settle himself into the chair, at last finding the epitome of comfort. “So what is it?”
“The Berowne case.”
“Berowne—that sounds familiar.”
“Of course it does. He was Geoffrey Berowne of Berowne Biscuits, although he retired a couple of years ago.”
“Oh, yes. I remember reading about it.” The memory, however, appeared to be elusive, for Bethancourt paused and then said doubtfully, “Poisoned, was he?”
“That’s right.” Gibbons searched among his papers and selected a report. “Lilies of the valley.”
“What do you mean, ‘lilies of the valley’?”
“It’s what he was poisoned with. I’d never heard of it either.”
Bethancourt regarded his friend with a severe eye. “You can’t poison people with flowers, Jack. At least, not that kind of flower.”
“Yes, you can,” retorted Gibbons.
“Nonsense.” Bethancourt rose and began to wander down the length of the library, peering into the bays. “There’s a section here somewhere,” he muttered. “Ah, there.” He disappeared into one of the bays and emerged in a moment with a book open in his hands. He turned the pages as he walked back to the table and then paused as he found the entry he wanted.
“Well, I guess you can,” he admitted. “It’s evidently quite toxic.”
“So forensics said,” replied Gibbons sarcastically.
“It says here that even the water the cut flowers have been standing in will kill you.”
“That’s how they think it happened,” said Gibbons. “He was having his elevenses, and someone tipped a bit of poisoned water into it.”
“It must have tasted awful.”
“Must have. But his sister-in-law said he always gulped things down. A coffee cup evidently only held a couple of swallows for him. He’d have it down before the taste registered.”
“And it’s quick acting,” said Bethancourt, who was still reading.
Bethancourt closed the book thoughtfully and sat down. “A spouse is always the first suspect,” he said. “Is there some reason Mrs. Berowne can’t have dosed the poor devil?”
“None at all,” replied Gibbons cheerfully. “In fact, she behaved quite suspiciously that morning. Everyone, including herself, testified that she was not a great walker and drove everywhere, yet on the morning her husband was murdered, she decided to walk to the village and took twice as long as she should have getting there.”
“There you are then,” said Bethancourt. Disappointment showed in his eyes. “You’ll just be gathering evidence and pushing it along to the attorneys.”
Bethancourt was never interested in Gibbons’s more mundane cases; forensic science held no charm for him, nor did the violent world of habitual criminals. He was intrigued by the people in a murder case, by what might drive an otherwise ordinary person to murder, and by the deductive process that led to the singling out of that person from the rest. A straightforward wife-poisons-husband case was not one he would spend two minutes thinking about.
Gibbons grinned at him. “It might be a bit more complicated than that,” he said. “After all, there’s got to be some reason the Surrey CID called in the Yard.”
Bethancourt was surprised. “It didn’t happen in London?”
“No, he was killed on his estate in Surrey. If it’s not the wife, there are certainly plenty of other suspects.” He pulled a single sheet from amongst the others. “There’s Berowne’s sister-in-law from his first marriage who was living in the house; there’s his son and daughter-in-law, living in a separate house on the estate; not to mention the cook, chauffeur, gardener, and housekeeper. None of them have alibis.”
“And did they all stand to gain from his death?”
“More or less. I was just looking over the terms of the will. The servants all get minor bequests and the bulk of his millions go to the widow for her lifetime.” He frowned and reached for his coffee. “It’s rather complicated. There’s a sum left absolutely to her, but most of it will be inherited upon her death by Berowne’s grandson, aged five at the moment. The real estate is also left to him, to be administered by the widow until he comes of age.” He scratched his head. “That’s odd.”
“Wait—I’m sorting it out. There’s a provision here that both Mrs. Berowne and the sister-in-law are to be allowed to live in the house until they die or wish to leave. And—” he consulted a second sheet “—yes, Berowne’s son and daughter-in-law are also to be allowed to live in the second house on the estate until their deaths. So even when young Edwin does come of age, he can’t kick anyone out and he can’t even live in his own house unless he wants to share it with his step-grandmother and his great aunt, with his parents looking on from across the garden.”
“My,” said Bethancourt. “They must all hate each other like poison.
Gibbons raised an eyebrow. “And how do you work that out?”
“Well, isn’t it obvious?” replied Bethancourt. “If the estate was a bastion of brotherly love, he’d just leave it to whomever he liked and assume they’d take care of the others. Instead, what he’s tried to do is ensure that no one will be kicked out of their home once he’s dead. Clearly that means he was worried that someone would be booted out.”
Gibbons considered. “I hadn’t thought of it like that,” he admitted.
“But what’s most interesting is that the son isn’t mentioned at all.”
“Oh, yes, he is,” said Gibbons. “He inherits his father’s shares in Berowne Biscuits, and it mentions that nothing more is left to him now because of his interest in the company and the amount settled on him at the time of his son’s birth. There’s also, if you want to know, a bequest of a hundred thousand pounds to Madeleine Wellman—that’s the sister-in-law—and another of the same amount to his daughter-in-law.”
Bethancourt shrugged this away. “That’s nothing,” he said. “People often leave bequests to their favorite relatives. My grandfather did to me, which made my sister furious. Well, it might turn out to be an interesting case at that. You’ve no idea why the Yard’s been asked to lend a hand?”
Gibbons shook his head. “Perhaps they think it’s the son,” he suggested. “He’s taken Berowne Biscuits over from his father and the offices are in London. If they found this murder connecting up with another crime here, they might want us in on it. Anyway, I’ll find out tomorrow. I’m meeting Carmichael in Guildford after he’s seen the chief constable.”
“Are you?” asked Bethancourt. His hazel eyes were bright behind his glasses. “You wouldn’t want a lift down, would you?”
Gibbons smiled. “I thought you might offer,” he said.
“You can fill me in on the rest then,” said Bethancourt, rising rather reluctantly. “Right now, I had better get back before Marla notices I’m gone.”
“All right.” Gibbons turned over the report on the will and gave his attention to the next item. Then he looked up. “Phillip,” he called, “you won’t be late, will you? I’ve got to be in Guildford at ten-thirty.”
Bethancourt waved a hand airily. “Don’t worry,” he said.
Gibbons did not feel reassured; Bethancourt was nearly always late.
THE YOUNG WIDOW. Copyright © 2005 by Cassandra Chan . All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y.10010.
Posted February 27, 2012
"Annette Berowne had a sweet, heart-shaped face. She had honey-blond hair and wide brown eyes. She was not beautiful, and certainly not glamorous, but only Phillip Bethancourt noticed that."
So begins Cassandra Chan's debut novel, The Young Widow, in her debut mystery series of Phillip Bethancourt and Jack Gibbons mysteries (clearly this book is a CLW review because of the author and not the main characters). But before discussing Annette Berowne, it is important to know about Gibbons and Bethancourt.
Bethancourt and Gibbons could not be more different. Everything comes easily to Phillip Bethancourt, a young and wealthy Englishman with a model girlfriend and posh apartment to match his high standard of living. Jack Gibbons, on the other hand, is more of an everyman--an ambitious detective sergeant at Scotland Yard, Gibbons has his eye on more important things than parties and women: he's watching for a career-making case. Despite their differences the two men strike an easy friendship, largely because of Bethancourt's interest in all things criminal and his knack for helping Gibbons with his more, shall we say, complex cases.
Annette Berowne, meanwhile, is the not beautiful nor glamorous widow of the murder victim in Gibbons' latest case. From the start, Annette Berowne seems like the obvious suspect, a young woman married to a man who could be her father usually is. Especially when that woman has been married to two other older men. Men who also died under unique circumstances.
However, as Jack and Phillip soon realize, Annette is not the only one who would benefit from Berowne's death. In fact, the small town near the family estate is ripe with suspects, as is the family itself. Still, the investigation seems to perpetually turn back to the enchanting Annette Berowne. No matter how desperately Gibbons tries to find a more likely suspect.
As Bethancourt observes his friend's, indeed everyone's, growing infatuation with the young widow his initial detachment becomes worry as Bethancourt begins to wonder if his friend could be walking down a path that will shatter his ambitious career before it's really begun.
The Young Widow is what I would call a quiet book. Chan's prose is witty and sharp, but it is also subtle. The book is rich with humor, but it is the restrained kind so usually associated with the English. The writing here cannot be devoured, rather it has to relished--readers have to linger. Both myself and my mother found the characters and the plot to be thoroughly enjoyable even with slight confusion at the beginning due to an influx of many characters' names over a short number of pages.
Although the story centers on the murder investigation, Chan's characters are fully-realized in her crystal clear representations of Gibbons and Bethancourt who seem ready to walk right off the page and into real life. This novel falls into the mystery genre without being formulaic (although I did guess the murderer, but since that rarely happens it was more enjoyable than annoying). Chan gives equal time to plot and characters to create not only a wonderful first book but strong footing for a series that already has three books to its credit.
You can read more about Gibbon's and Bethancourt's investigations in Village Affairs (2006) and Trick of the Mind (2008).
Posted December 9, 2008
Someone poisons ailing elderly Geoffrey Berowne using lilies of the valley. Local Surrey police feel they have the prime suspect his much younger wife Annette who inherited a fortune when she put her third husband under the ground. They look no further................... Detective Sergeant Jack Gibbons thinks the case is too simple if one assumes that Annette got away with killing her previous spouses then one can conclude she would do a better job covering her tail this time too. He wonders if someone is setting her up to take the fall using the mysterious deaths of her first two spouses as circumstantial evidence and the greedy motive of inheritance. However, he is also attracted to her even if she turns out to be a black widow. Jack begins looking at the greed angle honing in who wins if Annette is convicted of murder. Geoffrey's son Paul gains much more without a grieving widow to share money with and the victim¿s sister-in-law Maddie Wellman from his first marriage detested the intrusion of Annette especially in the will. Jack¿s best friend amateur sleuth Philip Betancourt worries about his fall into the spider¿s web so tries to solve the case to avert disaster............. Once the reader accepts that a long time pro like Jack would allow his wrong head to rule much of his actions, fans will enjoy a fine English police procedural. The story line is cleverly designed with solid twists so that the audience does not know who will take the fall or whether Annette is a killer or just chooses bad luck husbands. Readers will enjoy this fine tale while wondering if Jack can save the day.......... Harriet KlausnerWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 7, 2011
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Posted August 4, 2011
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