Murder in the countryside

Ann Granger’s novels involving Chief Inspector Alan Markby and his on-and-off paramour, Meredith Mitchell, take the classic British countryside cozy and update it in ways that turn it into an end-of-the-millennium contemporary. The inhabitants of a duplex in Oxfordshire symbolize this clash between the old and new. The ancient building with large back lot, once used to house farm families, is now split between Bodicote, the elderly village eccentric who keeps goats and has a wandering eye, and Liam and Sally Caswell, a professional couple who moved from London to the peaceful countryside so that Liam, a scientist whose research involved beagles, can write a book based on his work.

Trouble shows up swiftly. Liam’s a dragon whose short fuse and total lack of manners has enraged nearly everyone he’s met. Bodicote and he have already clashed over the goats getting into his garden, and Boticote’s habit of barging into their house led to numerous unpleasant scenes. Bodicote’s also angry at Sally when she fed his goats turnips and unknowingly spoilt their milk for awhile.

Then a letter bomb goes off, nearly killing Sally. A local animal rights group is suspected, but Markby’s not sure.

The more popular Brit mysteries these days, and here I’m thinking of the ones on PBS and A&E featuring Inspector Morse, Jane Tennison and Dr. Edward Fitzgerald (of “Cracker”), feature the walking wounded as heroes. In general, they’re unpleasant to be around, and saved only from total ostracism by the brilliance of their work. Granger’s Mitchell and Markby are good people in the tradition of the classic characters, and she leaves the bad attitudes, shaky morals and addictive habits to her villains, such as the wonky thirtysomething son of the lady of the manor, who share the same manorial home and lead the local animal rights group.

“A Touch of Mortality” is full of twists and turns in the second half that led this reader to continue turning pages long after bedtime, and ends with a satisfactory climax in which justice triumphs and the guilty get punished, sometimes in ways that have nothing to do with the legal system. Granger scatters her clues fairly, lays down red herrings with consummate ease, and leads readers repeatedly, and fairly, down the garden path. As an excellent example of classic mystery storytelling, “A Touch of Mortality” is the best I’ve read this year.