Review: Hysteria at the Wisteria by Ellen Mary Wilton

In crime fiction circles these days the whodunnit takes a back seat to darker tales. Gritty is the new black if you’ll pardon a twisted metaphor. As someone who rather enjoys an old fashioned murder mystery I sometimes lament the fact that almost everyone has gravitated towards the violent and/or bloody end of the spectrum as it makes it much more difficult for me to find a respite from the grimness without resorting to talking animals or hobby-themed cosy mysteries that often read like they are churned out. I was therefore chuffed when news of a genuine old-school murder mystery set in Australia reached us at Fair Dinkum HQ (thanks to Caroline Sully for the tip) and after coercing my local book store to order it for me I turned to it this week when I had a yen for something lighter than normal. Happily the book was as much of a treat in reality as it was in concept.

Early one Tuesday morning the ladies of the Wisteria Bowling Club in Sydney are making their way out to the green for a day’s play when the body of a man is discovered. When he is identified as the son of a former member of the club thought to be on his way to meet one of the club members, Vice-President of the club, Lucy Law, decides to do a bit of investigating. Being the wife of a prominent lawyer and acquaintance of the Superintendent in charge of the investigation gives Lucy some insider information but she really draws more on her position within the club which is, like so many social groups, a kind of extended family. And like all families its members have secrets they have no intention of sharing with outsiders. As the story unfolds we learn that several members of the club have had interactions with the dead man that could well provide motivation for committing murder. And all that remains is to address the question of which one of the potential suspects dunnit.

I grew up in a house with a keen lady bowler and have spent many hours at a club much like the one described in this book so can attest that its environs, members and rituals have a real authenticity to them (though I was astonished to learn that bowling ladies are no longer required to wear skirts of an exact length or even skirts at all – things have changed since I was making cups of tea at the club and driving my Aunt and her fellow bowlers around Adelaide). Although she’s almost guilty of prostheltizing for the cause at times, Wilton has done a terrific job of depicting this particular setting and the way it brings together people of all ages, income levels, classes etc for friendship, socialising and a shared interest in a way that few other pursuits manage to do. Her description of the variations in the way bowls is played by men and women is both keenly observed and something of a metaphor for life.

Although there are plenty of husbands, sons and male bit players all of the book’s main characters are women, a rarity in any kind of fiction I imagine. They are nicely drawm too, appearing at first to represent certain stereotypes but when we get to know them offering far more rounded personalities than first appearances would suggest. Although a pleasant person Lucy would be easy enough to envy if not actively dislike as she has all of life’s advantages including a wealthy husband, a beautfiul home and never having had to work or be short of money. But she throws her energy into her many activities with such gusto that it’s hard not to warm to her, especially as she really does learn a thing or two about the disparity between her life and that of other people who’ve been through tougher times.

Hysteria at the Wisteria is an intelligent, light read unfolding with a gentle pace and humour. Its author is perhaps a little zealous in her praise of bowls as a passtime but she does prove that good writers can bring tension to any situation when she has readers on tenterhooks over the outcome of a particular match. The mystery element is handled very competently and overall the book offers a pleasant reading experience that just might make the uninitiated think twice about what lies beneat the surface of the suburban bowls club.

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HYSTERIA AT THE WISTERIA by Ellen Mary Wilton is published by Short Stop Press [2011], ISBN 9780987089915. I bought my copy of the book.

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Apologies for the wierd-lookiing image of the book cover and less than the usual additional info on this post. I am without proper internet access for a few days and am having a not-so-fun time trying to blog with outdated equipment (work) or woeful internet access (Australia’s 3G network) combined with Steve Jobs’ loathing of flash (my iPad).