Black Ship by Carola Dunn

I’ve been reading Carola Dunn’s Daisy Dalrymple mystery series for a year or so, and because I get the books from the Ohio Digital Library, I have not been able to read them in any sort of order.  I believe I read the first two or three the way they were intended, then jumped around a bit in the middle. Detective series books can get formulaic, but the Daisy Dalrymple Mysteries seem slightly less so.  This may be because I’m not reading them in order, but it seems like Carola Dunn does a good job at shining a light on the one formulaic part of these books – that our protagonist Daisy seems to stumble upon a lot of dead bodies.  Like, a Jessica Fletcher Murder She Wrote amount of dead bodies.  It was no surprise to me when I jumped ahead a few books in the series and learned that Daisy Dalrymple married Scotland Yard detective Alec Fletcher and changed her own last name to Fletcher.  Dun dun dunnnnnn.

Daisy Dalrymple Fletcher is a member of the aristocracy.  I know very little about the class structure of England, despite being a big fan of English literature.  There’s something about the Lords and Viscounts and which titles go with which position and who gets the name and who gets the inheritance that gets me very confused.  I feel the same kind of confusion looking at peerage that I do when looking at a March Madness bracket, or a baseball wild card game.  Regardless, Daisy is an Honourable without the family home or fortune, and has decided to make her living writing articles to support herself.  In the first book in the series, she meets Alec the weekend she’s staying at a stately home, writing an article for a magazine, and Alec is called in to investigate a murder.   The series goes from there, placing a number of murder scenes on the spot when Daisy is visiting to write an article.  The Murder She Wrote parallel is very strong here.

Black Ship was written in 2008, setting it about 2/3 of the way through the series to date.  The book is set in 1925, when Daisy and her husband Alec, their twins Miranda and Oliver, and Alec’s daughter Belinda move to a fancy new house that has recently been left to Alec by a conveniently well off, conveniently dead great-uncle.  This is important because the lawyer who shows her the house lives next door, and the family next door is involved in importing alcohol…to America.  Dun dun dunnnnnn!

Now, in 1925, America is a prohibition country, although it seems like people still actually drank a lot more than they do now.  I imagine this means that the price was right for booze importers, although it most certainly caused tension between different factions of hooch dealers.  Sorry, sorry, wine distributors.  This is where the drama comes in.  Daisy calls round to meet the rest of her neighbors and make small talk, and learns that the family is very nervous about one of the brothers, Patrick, who has gone “abroad” and is expected back shortly. On her way out, Daisy bumps into an American who was meeting with someone secretly in the kitchen.  An American?  In a house of booze exporters?  Dun dun dunnnn!

Upon arrival at her current home, Daisy is surprised by an old friend of the Fletchers’ from one of their American adventures, a Mr. Lambert.  Since I jumped around in the series, I am not familiar with Mr. Lambert.  They alluded to some convoluted adventures and I got the impression that Lambert was a bit of a Grady Fletcher.  I was not disappointed in this, because he admits that his pocket was picked, and he lost his passport and all paperwork with proof of his ties to the American Government, and gosh darn it, it’s going to take the Embassy several days to get the paperwork sent over.  May he stay with the Fletchers? Oh and did he mention he’s no longer working for the FBI?  He’s now working for Treasury, and somehow Treasury is overseeing the Prohibition Division.  This is certainly convenient.

Since Lambert has nothing better to do, he decides to hang out with Daisy over the next few weeks and helps her get the new house prepared.  He comes up with some great ideas to make it look fresh and clean, since they can’t possibly move into the house without it being decorated.  As if.  In college, I once moved into an apartment that not only did not have furniture, I didn’t have anything mattress-like for sleeping.  I spent the first week sleeping on a beanbag chair, using my duffle bag full of clothing as a pillow, so please forgive me for not feeling sympathetic about the Fletchers’ lack of interior design.  Since Lambert is being ever so helpful, it makes sense that he’d go with Daisy the next time she popped next door to have drinks with the new neighbors.  Lambert and Daisy do their best to gloss over the whole Prohibition enforcement thing, although it turns out they fail to hide the fact that Daisy’s husband is a Scotland Yard detective.  The neighbors are nonplussed.

Meanwhile, we’re treated to a scene on a ship…a black ship, presumably, where we learn that Patrick’s on a mission to America, to sell some illegal liquor to some Americans, and that this is a Very Dangerous Business.  

The Fletchers are finally able to move into their new house and Lambert takes off, having received his paperwork.  Before leaving he makes Daisy promise not to recognize him in the street or blow his cover.  Daisy thinks this is hilarious, because Lambert has so far done nothing but walk the dog, play with the kids, and help her track down her wayward contractors.  It was encouraging to read that this is problem encountered by people in other countries, and not just by me.    

There’s another ship scene, where we again learn that rum-running is super dangerous.  The Coast Guard chases the ship, and Patrick makes his acquaintance with a scary, presumably violent fellow rum-runner named Callaghan.  

Life goes on with the Fletchers.  They meet with the neighbors several times for parties, and Daisy develops a friendship with Audrey, Patrick’s sister in law.  We learn that Patrick’s mom is very worried about him, but won’t really confirm whether or not Patrick is America, even though at this point I was rolling my eyes and wondering who she thought she was kidding.  Things are going well, until Daisy’s maid discovers a body in the community garden.  The body has a major head wound, but the cause of death is more sinister – two thumbprints on an artery in the throat.  Looks like the corpse was knocked out, then suffocated by restricted blood flow.  Definitely murder.  As usual, neither Alec nor his boss can believe that Jessica Fletcher Daisy Fletcher has gotten involved in another murder!  She should just stick to writing murder mysteries articles about stately homes!

Turns out nobody immediately recognizes the body, but at least it’s not Patrick, who has finally returned home from a country which may or may not have been America. Daisy is convinced the corpse is American, or connected to America, perhaps because the corpse was wearing giant white sneakers and a logo t-shirt.  At least this happened in the garden across the street, because she can butt into the case to her heart’s content.  The police conveniently set up headquarters in the new house, which is…not at all plausible?  I guess because Alec’s with Scotland Yard and blah blah blah.  They briefly gloss over whether he should have anything to do with the investigation of his own neighbors at all and decide they’ll keep it on the down low.  Yes.  Conducting the investigation under his own roof is certainly down low.  

After many hours of detecting, the police discover a sodden passport and take it to an expert to have the writing revealed.  Sure enough, it’s an American passport, and the guy’s name is Castellano.  Italian-American, not Irish like the neighbors next door.  Daisy is allowed to see the passport picture and recognizes Castellano as the American who visited the neighbors the first night she met them.  Dun dun dunnn.

Alec knows from policing that there are Irish, Italian, and Jewish bootlegging gangs, and so makes the connection that this Castellano dude must be a bootlegger, placing their new neighbors right on the hot seat.  Obviously, the neighbors are jumpy.  They send Audrey away to visit her sister, although they are as secretive about that as they were about Patrick’s location.  Furthermore, Audrey’s husband (Patrick’s brother) Aiden has also absconded in the night.  The neighbors claim this was all coincidence, and that Audrey’s trip had been planned for months.  Aiden and Patrick’s mother changes her story up a bit.  First she says Aiden always makes a trip at that particular time of year, then she implies that Aiden and Patrick had a fight when Patrick came home, and that’s why Aiden has taken leave so suddenly.  

The investigation now centers around the neighbors, who are nervous, but who submit to several interviews and a search of the house, which reveals nothing.  They are quick to point out that they aren’t breaking any English laws, even if liquor is illegal in America.  The police give zero cares about this – everyone seems to think that prohibition is stupid, and I suppose that’s still true to this day.  Under questioning, a family member reveals that Aiden decided to go visit some customers “up North.”    This is confirmed a few hours later when the family receives a phone call from a hospital “up North,” stating that Aiden has been checked in with some kind of head injury.

Alec tears off to visit Aiden in the hospital, wanting to get Aiden’s first words when he comes round.  He decides to take Patrick with him.  Not only does Patrick want to see his brother, but Alec realizes that the hospital is conveniently located by Scotland Yard, should he need to arrest either or both of the brothers.

Back at the homestead, Daisy has just agreed with her neighbor’s mother that she will go visit Aiden’s wife Audrey and break the news of Aiden’s accident, when the Bennetts barge into the Fletcher house.  The Bennetts are the neighborhood busybodies, rude, and glued to their binoculars.  They tell Daisy that they saw both Patrick and Aiden outside in the garden the night of the murder…but nothing else.  They claim bad vision, and fogged glass.  Daisy gets them to sign statements before sending them on their way.  Seizing her opportunity to meddle yet again, she hops in a car with the lawyer (remember him?  The lawyer who showed Daisy the house?)  and they drive “up North” to lend support and possibly legal advice to Audrey and Aiden.  At this point in the story, even Daisy was hemming and hawing over how inappropriate this was.  I’m glad it was written as awkwardly as it felt to read.

Aiden wakes up and is immediately coherent and forthcoming, which seems unlikely, but it’s awfully convenient for this story.  He’s suffering delayed reactions from a concussion he got on the night of the murder, when he and his brother were confronted by a gun-wielding Castellano outside, by the fountain.  Aiden claims that a fight ensued and both he and Castellano whacked their heads on the fountain lip, which certainly explains both head injuries.  It does not, however, explain what happened to the gun.  Aiden also claims that when he woke up, Patrick checked Castellano’s pulse and found him already dead.  They moved the body into the bushes, and that was the last they know.  This doesn’t look good for Patrick.

Patrick confirms Aiden’s version of the story with Alec, who believes the brothers but wonders where the gun went.  Both brothers seem to be under the impression that Castellano died of a head wound, and want to know if they’ll be arrested for manslaughter, or moving a body.  Aiden returns home, as well as Audey, Daisy, and the lawyer, and Patrick stays behind to assist the Yard with their inquiries.  

Daisy goes next door – again – to try to sooth the fears of the household.  She’s not sure whether to tell them that Patrick’s the main suspect, or to play it quiet, when she’s called away by her maid.  Someone has shown up on her doorstep – Lambert!  Remember Lambert?  Don’t Blow My Cover Lambert?  He’s back, and he claims he saw the whole thing.

Daisy wants to know what the hell Lambert’s on about.  Why didn’t he call the police?  Lambert says the bobbies don’t respect him, because he’s American.  I almost snorted at this point.  Maybe it’s because you’re an idiot, Lambert.  Anyway, Lambert claims that after tailing the murderer for a few days, he managed to get into the guy’s hotel room using a clever ruse, and now the murder is tied up in the closet! He’s been there for several hours! Isn’t that great?!

I’m not sure why he came to get Daisy in person, rather than just calling the police from the room.  Lambert has no authority for arrest in England, and it’s easy to see why no one respects him.

The murderer, by the way, was Callaghan, the shady guy Patrick hooked up with on the boat to America.  Castellano wasn’t pulling his gun on Aiden.  He was pulling his gun on Callaghan.  When the two men knocked into the fountain and Patrick was distracted trying to revive his brother, Callaghan somehow manages to sneak up to Castellano’s limp body and suffocate him, without Patrick ever seeing or hearing him.  Patrick hadn’t mentioned Callaghan because, duh, he’s not going to implicate himself in gang activity.  Callaghan and Castellano were both heavily involved in opposing gangs, and we all know that Sharks can’t stand Jets.  

Naturally, Lambert is a considered a hero and not charged with false imprisonment or anything.  I don’t know if that was a tort that existed in England in 1925, but it’s the first place my mind went.  The only remaining mystery is the location of the mystery gun.  Daisy surmises that when it was thrown away in the struggle, perhaps it was throw into the urn at the top of the fountain?  I tried to picture this and, nope.  Wouldn’t you fling a gun to the side, not straight up in the air?  Especially if you were an international tough, used to handling guns?  Whatever.  Not only is this mystery solved, it wasn’t really solved by Daisy.  It was solved by Lambert, the Prohibition agent, who celebrates with a glass of champagne.  After all, he’s not breaking any English laws.  

While the international thriller style plot line does not appeal to me, I did appreciate that Daisy didn’t solve this one.  An amateur sleuth can’t consistently out-detect the professionals in every single case.  I know this is fiction, but it’s obvious that Carola Dunn has a high regard for police from the way she writes her stories, and I’m glad they don’t end up looking like massive idiots.  I do wonder if she’s a Murder She Wrote fan, given some of the interesting character parallels in this story.
Until next time, read what you like, and don’t worry about impressing the neighbors.  They may be smugglers, and think what that would do your property value.  

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