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Marlan Warren is a free-lance publicist who promotes entertainers and book authors (Roadmap Communications and Book Publicity by Marlan, respectively). She is also a film maker (Roadmap Productions), Reiki Master/Teacher (Light Hands Reiki Studio and Institute), Screenwriter, Novelist, PhotoJournalist, Tai Chi practitioner. 

Friday, January 2, 2015

REVIEW: "WILFUL MURDER:: UNTANGLING BLOODY FAMILY TREES IN THE LAND DOWN UNDER

Title: Wilful Murder
Author: Celia Conrad
Published 2011 by Barcham Books
ISBN-13: 978-0954623333       ISBN-10: 0954623339
Amazon Kindle - ASIN: B00A1NCNRO
REVIEW

Look to the past to see what the future holds. —Wilful Murder 

Who doesn't enjoy a ripping good tale of a Will, murdered relatives and love's labor rewarded? For Wilful Murder, the second book in the Alicia Allen Investigates trilogy, British author Celia Conrad has concocted a pastiche composed of the basic elements we expect in a murder mystery that spins on disgruntled relatives, and reinvented it as part-Travelogue, part-Greek Tragedy, part-Shakespeare and part-Love Story.

If you love "cozy mysteries" with their gentle no-sex-or-graphic-violence paradigms, and strong, intuitive female amateur sleuths; and you love "cerebral mysteries" with their complicated Ah Ha! plots, then I highly recommend Wilful Murder for your next great read. And if you know nothing about cozies or cerebrals, but just love a bittersweet romantic subplot where a dynamic duo slug it out until they (almost) fall into each other's arms á la Hepburn and Tracy--then yes, this book's for you too.
I do suggest reading Book 1, A Model Murder, first. Although few of the first book's characters and almost none of its setting make their way into the second, there's little exposition to bring the newbie up to speed in terms of what has happened in the past to create the present circumstances that open the story.

In the previous book, Alicia Allen--the Anglo-Italian woman lawyer with a passion for justice--makes friends with an Australian neighbor who works at the law firm where Alicia has just been newly hired. The young, pretty Australian, Kim, has a crush on her boss, Alex, who in turn has a thing for the incomparable Alicia. At the close of A Model Murde, Alicia and Alex appear to be merrily strolling off into the sunset. But alas, they are not a couple by the time we revisit Alicia in London.

As Wilful Murder opens, Alicia is preparing to go to Kim's wedding in Australia. She is now estranged from Alex who once courted her, but took off to work in Singapore. They are still in touch, but Alicia carries resentment at Alex's decision to distance himself from her.

"I don't think you can afford to trust anyone..."—Wilful Murder 

Alicia Allen is nothing if not cautious. She is not a heroine who wears her heart on her sleeve, and in this, not unlike Patricia Cornwall's psychologically wounded medical examiner Kay Scarpetta. Like Scarpetta, Alicia plays her cards close to her chest. She's not one to swoon when Alex appears again--this time in Australia for Kim's wedding. For his part, Alex wants nothing more than to woo Alicia, and he nearly turns himself inside out trying.

Alicia has other things on her mind by the time she crosses paths with the most-desirable-man-on-earth (aka "Alex"). Before leaving London, she took on a client with more troubles than her own: Isabelle Parker, an heiress who is about to come into a magnificent fortune, if she can stay alive long enough to inherit it. Relatives and relatives-to-be have been dropping like proverbial flies, and the body count grows as the plot proceeds.

Having read Book 1, we know that Alicia would rather find the killer or killers than opt for a romantic fling with her ex-boyfriend while she travels Australia on a kind of "working" holiday to investigate the Australian-British ancestral ties of the endangered heiress.

She visits lovely beachy spots, dines in charming cafes on exotic fare and visits museums--without her solicitious solicitor suitor in tow. Quite frankly, those of us who might be lying boyfriendless on some beachreading Wilful Murder may wish to slap some sense into this righteous heroine, but thereis still that voice inside our heads that shouts, "You go, Girl!" when she finally gets physical in a life-threatening clinch with the killer as the story approaches its denouement.

Conrad arranges for Alex to be out of the picture for quite some time, and we are left to follow Alicia's head as she works out the puzzle to solve these crimes. This is true to the "cerebral" mystery style, and reminiscent of Agatha Christie's careful detailing and construction. The plot is chock full of minor characters: most of whom we barely get to know.

In the first chapter, Isabelle's statements regarding her ancestral history were so complex, I ended up mapping it out on paper so I could keep track of who's who.

One of Conrad's great strengths is dialogue. I found that if I simply "saw" the story as a film and let the dialogue carry me through, A Wilful Murder came to vivid life in my mind's eye.

"What are the two things most people kill for?"—Wilful Murder  

An ominous note received by imminent victims warns:
"Look to the past to see what the future holds and make recompense for what those before you have done..."
Conrad's handling of "the past" as it pertains to Isabelle's tangled family tree gives a (perhaps unwitting) nod to the Greek tragedy, Oedipus Rex. The play is made up mostly of exposition. We hear about the past...the past...the past. The gory action of Oedipus gouging out his eyes when he realizes he's married his mother is saved for the end. Conrad saves up her big action scenes for the end--after we have been put through the wringer of cerebral dialogue that examines the unaswered questions of the Past.

"Indecisive." —Wilful Murder 

"Indecisive" is one of the last words in the book, and reflects this tale's Hamlet aspects. Yes, Alicia catches the bouquet, but it has no more active effect on her than Hamlet seeing his father's ghost. There is also something Shakespearean in the way Conrad tends to kill off her characters "offstage," so news of their demise are brought by messengers.
When the story comes together at the end--revealing truths, tying up some loose ends and leaving others still hanging--it leaves the reader feeling winded and yet oddly trimphant having made it across the various locales and dangers that abide in Wilful Murder, and having found tourist pleasures in the Land Down Under and returned to Great Britain, while still trying to figure out whodunit.

Wilful Murder is built around the fine art of looking at the past--where we came from, what made us who we are today, the skeletons in our closets that we may or may not know about, and it prompts questions about whether we can make positive changes such as opening our hearts again to someone in spite of all we've been through or whatever pain still resides in our DNA.
Looking forward to the last book in the trilogy, Murder in Hand and its take on Sicilian corruption. Brava, Celia!

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Marlan Warren's review originally published in Dancing in the Experience Lane