by M.M. Kaye
When young Sarah Parrish takes a skiing vacation to Gulmarg, a resort nestled in the mountains above the fabled Vale of Kashmir, she anticipates an entertaining but uneventful stay. But when she discovers that the deaths of two in her party are the result of foul play, she finds herself entrusted with a mission of unforeseen importance. And when she leaves the ski slopes for the Waterwitch, a private houseboat on the placid shores of the Dal Lake near Srinagar, she discovers to her horror that the killer will stop at nothing to prevent Sarah from piecing the puzzle together.
This book is in much the same vein as Mary Stewart's "travel mysteries". True to the formula, a young and beautiful British heroine visiting a foreign country finds herself embroiled in a suspenseful mystery, with the additional thread of a light romance. Both also possess the charm of a retro setting. (This particular book is set in India in the late 1940s, soon after WWII and right before the British left the country.)
I've enjoyed several of Stewart's novels, and my introduction to Kaye was also satisfactory. So far, I think I prefer Stewart, but they are fairly close, in my estimation. Both are good choices for light dramatic fiction with strong settings, a little suspense, and a sprinkle of romance.
I have a few quibbles, which I'll address below, but on the whole, it's a reasonably enjoyable read for the genre.
Specifics (with SPOILERS):
--Pluses: Some of the descriptions of Kashmir were lovely. (It's a part of the world I haven't seen much about before, so I had to look up some photos.) The novel got off to a strong start. I learned a little more about the history of India (and the British Empire)-- something I've never really spent much time thinking or learning about before, to be honest. The "whodunit" aspect kept me guessing until the end.
--The romance element of most of these books leaves me uninterested, and such was definitely the case here. I just couldn't bring myself to care about Sarah and Charles as a couple-- found myself bored or, worse, rolling my eyes a few times... A little too much insta-love?
--Maybe part of my problem with the romance is that I just didn't love Sarah as much as we're supposed to... She's okay, but maybe a little too self-satisfied with her own loveliness. And Charles... Well, we don't really know him, do we, beyond the fact that he's smitten with Sarah.
--"Girls who are spectacled never get their necks tickled"? Wonderful. That's one thing I truly do like about the modern day. Glasses are no longer (for many people, at least) an instant negative. Glasses can actually be considered nice-looking-- at least not a horrible affliction that renders women universally unattractive. I hope that doesn't change anytime soon.
--Sarah sometimes doesn't seem as smart as she's supposed to be (for instance, as in the case of the bead curtain, which felt immediately clear as soon as the line of poetry turned up). There were numerous times that she felt too slow on the up-take. Of course, the hero is just as slow, sometimes, which is strange, considering that he's a spy/international man of mystery/secret agent man. I guess the author was trying to give the reader a chance to figure things out for herself, first, but there are limits.
--Sarah's (and at times even Charles') lack of urgency in finding Janet's hidden message frustrated me. I guess it had to be drawn out somewhat (though maybe not quite so much), but surely there could've been unavoidable interruptions. Instead, it feels like Sarah's just too lazy and self-indulgent to bother looking. She dines with friends, goes to sleep early, shops, etc. when she could have been looking for that message. Annoying!!
--I was certain that Meril would turn out to be one of the bad guys. Certainly didn't see Hugo coming. He felt "safe", as a close associate of Sarah's-- but I guess that if his own wife didn't suspect, it's not impossible that Sarah's connections to him (whatever they were, for I can't really recall) could also have been hoodwinked.
--It was an unusual experience to read about a villain who is devoted to "the Party"-- a Red-- a Communist. These days, we're trained to laugh at such things. Earlier generations were ridiculous to see Communism as a threat, and any suggestion of the very real evils of Communism? Scoff-worthy.
--"The big struggle is to come, and it is going to be far more bitter: because it will be between ideologies and not nations." The struggle between ideologies continues, though the ideologies in question may change or go by different names...
--There's a scene where Sarah starts laughing hysterically soon after finding a body, and Charles slaps her across the face to snap her out of it. I have always found that practice (fairly common during a certain era of literature and film) to be bizarre. What's wrong with just letting the person continue laughing until s/he stops on his/her own? (I can think of few circumstances under which hysterical laughing could cause anyone physical harm...) The mental image of the hero slapping the heroine is distasteful.