Friday, December 27, 2019

“A Quiet Life in the Country” by T E Kinsey – The Enlightened Widow

A Quiet Life in the Country by T E Kinsey (Book cover)
Few authors have had the success T E Kinsey did with his first novel, A Quiet Life in the Country, the first entry in the Lady Hardcastle Mystery series.

Presenting us with the Lady herself, an eccentric widow accompanied by her maid and confidante in 1908 England, the story follows a murder investigation in the countryside, one the police are very close to bungling up. Thankfully, Lady Hardcastle is on the case, and few things, if any, escape her vigilant eye.

T E Kinsey Begins Lady Hardcastle's Adventures

I think at this point, the quaint British countryside has become a bit of a running joke, with it seemingly being the setting for ninety percent of the murders happening in the United Kingdom, at least if novels and television shows are to be believed. Nevertheless, there's a reason for it: it provides the perfect combination of secrecy, a small but focused cast, limited recourse and few distractions. In my mind, this is one of those classic literary conventions which will only die with literature itself, and case in point, T E Kinsey's extremely successful first novel, A Quiet Life in the Country.

The book begins by introducing us to Lady Emily Hardcastle, an eccentric widow living with Florence Armstrong, her maid, confidante, and martial arts expert, as the tradition dictated back then. The year is 1908, and keen to forget her past life, Lady Emily moves out of London and into the idyllic countryside where she might have a bit of hope for rejuvenation. Needless to say though, her calm respite was never meant to be: a dead body has been discovered in the woods.

Somewhat surprisingly, the police seem to be on an entirely wrong trail, and Lady Hardcastle knows the murder will get away... unless she comes out of retirement and intervenes herself. Thus, she begins to make some inquiries of her own, working like a real professional, and in the process dives deeper and deeper into the hatred and rivalries hidden beneath the veneer of peace and calm.

Perhaps landing into something bigger than she herself could have expected, Lady Emily uncovers a web of conspiracy and intrigue which stretches far beyond the adorable little village, casting a web of suspicion on every single person living there. Though she might not find the quiet life she yearned for in the country, she might definitely find secrets nobody was ever meant to unearth.

A Contemporary Take on Classic Mystery in A Quiet Life in the Country

Now, at first sight this book looks more or less exactly like some good old Agatha Christie murder mystery or something of the sort. We have our unlikely heroine with a penchant for investigation, our policemen who can't seem to do their jobs right, and a web of intrigue touching virtually every single character we come across. To be honest, I expected the book to adhere to the conventions and principles of the genre, but I have to say I was quite pleasantly surprised by the direction which the author took.

While it is indeed a murder mystery, Kinsey doesn't necessarily always make it the number on priority of any scene we are experiencing. Instead, he likes to focus more on the environments and the characters themselves, which I'm glad he did considering the immense talent he displayed in bringing the village to life. We learn a fair deal of interesting tidbits about the history of the place and the meaning behind various parts of the setting, to the point where it starts to feel like a familiar place we can map out in our heads. In my opinion, the world-building was some of the best I had ever seen.

Where A Quiet Life in the Country really veers off from the beaten path of the classics is the amount of attention given to the various characters and the great depths their personalities reached. While in old murder mystery novels people would be fairly one-dimensional and generally only serve the purpose of advancing the intrigue, here the author treats them like real, multi-layered people who aren't inherently good nor evil.

Most prominent for me was the relationship between Lady Emily and her maid Florence, portrayed with a lot of humour, charm and wit few writers could ever hope to pull off. In the end, the people here aren't just pawns to be used as a means to reach the solution to the mystery... they have their own multi-dimensional lives which are impacted by everything around them.

Some Things Shouldn't Change

With all I've said about how the novel diverges from the established conventions of the genre, I do still have good news for book readers such as myself who tremendously enjoy those conventions: the murder mystery itself belongs with some of the better works of the last century.

Kinsey seems to have a real knack for creating complex and multi-layered puzzles out of the lives and actions of his characters, to the point where it felt to me like someone who solved it on their own deserves some sort of a medal. Not because it was impossible to figure out or we lacked the clues, but specifically because it was so well put-together, pushing us to make complex logical deductions while avoiding red herrings.

While the police aren't exactly on the right track, we are presented with a very refreshing change of pace with Inspector Sunderland who is far from being a bumbling buffoon as is seemingly the tradition. Instead, he is a very capable investigator himself and, to me at least, became rather endearing as the story moved on and he trudged onward, even in the face of an overwhelming difficulty. I felt he added a welcome dimension of diversity to the investigative plot and gave it a bit more life.

A Quiet Life in the Country by T E Kinsey (Book cover)
As far as Lady Emily Hardcastle herself goes, I think Kinsey might have a real gem on his hands with this character. On one hand, she is a perfectly capable investigative machine whose intellectual prowess only beckons admiration on our part. On the other hand, she is also lovable, witty, humorous, and basically everything you wouldn't expect out of a widowed lady in 1908.

However, none of it ever feels out of time or out of place, and to this I have to credit the author's writing style, always keeping us in this specific period. With all the mystery from her past yet to be unravelled, I have a feeling her character has the potential for several books worth of development, at the very least.

The Final Verdict

A Quiet Life in the Country by T E Kinsey is, without exaggeration, one of my favourite murder mysteries I've had the pleasure of reading this year. It both breaks conventions and preserves them where beneficial, presents a complex, intriguing and challenging mystery, as well as a memorable cast of characters and setting to go along with it. If you are a fan of the genre to any degree and are looking for something a bit more on the light side in terms of general mood, then I strongly recommend you give this novel a read.

T E Kinsey (Author)

T E Kinsey

Personal site

T E Kinsey is a writer who grew up in London and had the distinction of reading history at Bristol University. Before becoming an author he worked as a magazine features writer as well as an online content editor for various entertainment websites. His published career began with A Quiet Life in the Country, the first entry in the Lady Hardcastle Mystery series. In the Market for Murder and Death Around the Bend were two of his other best-received books, also part of the series.

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