The Sheila Malory series by Hazel Holt has always been one of my favourites & Death is a Word is the final book in the series. Set in the fictional town of Taviscombe in Dorset, my interest has always been just as much in Sheila’s life, interests & friends as it has been in the various murder mysteries she’s found herself involved in.
In this final book, Sheila’s friend Rosemary’s cousin Eva Jackson has moved back to the area after the death of her husband, Alan. Alan had been a journalist, a foreign correspondent, but instead of being killed in some overseas conflict, he died in London of kidney failure. Eva has a garage full of Alan’s papers & Rosemary is keen to help her settle in to her new life, encouraging her to sort through the papers so they can be edited for publication. Sheila is less keen. A widow herself, she knows how raw emotions can be & tries to rein Rosemary in a little. Eva’s son, Dan, lives in London & works for a foodie magazine. His relations with his mother are affectionate but a little remote. Both very private people, they’ve never been very close although he does visit her in Taviscombe & meets Sheila, Rosemary & Rosemary’s formidable mother, Mrs Dudley.
Sheila’s bossy friend Anthea, who runs local cultural centre Brunswick Lodge, is keen to get Eva involved in her many plans for talks & events. Luckily her attention is soon taken by another new arrival to the area, Donald Webster. Donald has recently retired from working in South America for a pharmaceutical company & seems happy to go along with Anthea’s plans. He seems helpful, polite & enthusiastic but Sheila can’t help feeling that there’s something odd about a successful businessman choosing to retire to sleepy Taviscombe where he has no ties or family associations. Eva becomes interested in researching her family history & Rosemary is pleased that she’s moving on from Alan’s death. However, she’s a little put out when Eva & Donald Webster begin going out together.
Sheila & Rosemary are shocked when Eva dies suddenly. She had been suffering from a virus & the coroner concludes that she must have felt so ill that she forgot to take the insulin for her diabetes. Eva’s son, Dan, & his partner Patrick come down for the funeral & decide to stay on in Eva’s cottage while Dan decides what to do next. He decides to continue the genealogical research his mother had started. Dan & Patrick seem content to stay at the cottage & Dan becomes very fond of Mrs Dudley, visiting her to ask about the family & looking through her photo albums. One morning, Dan is knocked down by a car & killed while on his usual morning run. Sheila begins to suspect that Dan’s death wasn’t an accident or a random hit & run. If Dan’s death wasn’t accidental, could there be more to Eva’s death? Was there something in Alan’s papers (there was that suspicious fire in the shed where they were stored) or could Eva’s genealogical research have disturbed family secrets? Sheila talks to everyone, comes up with several incorrect theories but eventually realises that there can only be one solution, however unlikely it seems.
This is a very satisfying mystery with everything I enjoy about English small town (or village) stories. Sheila is a widow, with a married son, a dog, Tris & cat, Foss, who rule her life in a very believable way! I’m also very fond of Mrs Dudley, who dominates Rosemary’s life but is really quite vulnerable & a little lonely. The small town atmosphere of walks by the shore, morning coffee & visits to the theatre in Bath is very inviting, everything a cosy mystery should be, really. It’s a shame that there will be no more books in the series but also reassuring that Hazel Holt didn’t feel the need to kill off anyone apart from the designated victims. Hazel Holt’s books have been brought back into print in recent years by Coffeetown Press & her books about her friend, Barbara Pym, the biography, A Lot To Ask & the edited diaries & letters, A Very Private Eye, are now available as ebooks or POD paperbacks from Bello.