Derek Farrell – Death At Dukes Halt
First, the official blurb: Lady Caroline Victoria Genevieve Jane de Montfort (Caz to her friends) made a promise to her (newly deceased) friend George Warren and she intends to keep it – sadly for Danny Bird, she’s roped him in as her accomplice. And so with Danny’s South London pub The Marq left in the “safe” hands of Ray & Dash (The Asbo Twins) and his indomitable bar manager Ali roped in as their driver, the trio set off to spend the weekend at the Warren family’s imposing country estate, Dukes Halt. As they set about achieving their mission, Danny, Caz and Ali are joined by a classic cast of characters including a Hollywood actress, a right-wing MP and an Albanian gangster. Shenanigans inevitably ensue. Of course, it wouldn’t be an authentic country house weekend without a murder or two and pretty soon Danny and the gang are on the track of the killer in their midst. As the plot twists and turns in every direction, Danny wrestles with another deeper, sadder mystery hidden in the pages of a secret diary that he realises may just hold the key to everything.
The usual disclaimer: Derek is a friend, but his books make it on to the blog on their own merits – and there are plenty of merits, believe me!
I’ve raved about Derek Farrell’s books previously, and he was my first interviewee in the Five By Five series grilling authors on their writing and publishing journey, where he gave us a few hints about his newest novel, Death At Dukes Halt. I said in my review of Death Of An Angel that this was the book Farrell had been working up to, where he really showed us what he can do. Death At Dukes Halt is what happens when a writer acknowledges what he can do, and takes a big step forward, Indiana Jones-style, into what in one respect is the great unknown while simultaneously being the place they’ve always been heading for, whether they knew it or not.
The prologue is brief but powerful: a man lies dead on the floor, a woman has a gun in her hand, and Danny Bird is in the middle of it all. Then we’re back to The Marq, Danny’s pub in London, where he is trying to arrange a talent night while best pal Caz is trying to persuade him to join her on a trip to Dukes Halt to visit her goddaughter and simultaneously fulfil the dying wishes of a former boyfriend, George, who was banished from the family estate many years ago. An unexpected visitor adds to the intrigue, and Danny is persuaded to assist them – on his return from his trip to the countryside, many miles from his geographical and emotional comfort zones, with Caz.
As the guests arrive at Dukes Halt – including a gangster, a right-wing MP and an actress-turned-lifestyle-guru, in a delightful updating of classic country house mystery stylings – Danny feels seriously out of his depth, and a tour of the Long Gallery’s generations of family portraits offers a large dose of class intimidation (though there are some things that interest him, too…). Caz – Lady Caroline Victoria Genevieve Jane de Montfort – may be able to make herself at home in Danny’s world, but he does not have the same knack when faced with her world, and I imagine many, if not most, of the readers will feel a kinship with Danny in this moment, Farrell neatly drawing us closer to his protagonist.
We are further drawn to Danny, in his role as Everyman and general sensible person, at dinner on the first night, which is both a hilariously waspish scene, neatly skewering several of the characters, while also introducing a note of real menace in the person of gangster Sergei. Such a disparate group of people thrown together – with, inevitably, plenty of secrets – and it would be ridiculous to think there won’t be trouble (and indeed shenanigans, as the back cover blurb promises).
Danny discovers a diary belonging to George, dating from when he was a schoolboy – it’s full of pain, naivety, misunderstanding and grief. My heart breaks for George as Danny turns the pages. Farrell is so skilled at emotional moments and finding just the right words to prompt a lump in the throat of the reader – see also Caz’s words about friendship; if you want a lesson in empathy, love and investing your characters with emotional depth, read chapter 37.
In short order, there are also a runaway teen, a robbery, and then a murder and an uninvited guest. Not for the first time, Danny is looked up on suspiciously by the police, and not for the first time he is several steps ahead of them as he unravels why the obvious conclusions they are jumping aren’t the right answers. He may not have the moustache, but he does have the “little grey cells” (though they are distracted when his complex personal life takes a turn for the painful).
The Christie influence on Dukes Halt is obvious, but there is huge affection in the homage – and there is far more here than mere pastiche. There are twists, turns, shenanigans aplenty, reveals and sleight of hand all through the book and all neatly laid out by Danny in the drawing room in a final scene, and while I was puzzled more than once – for there are a lot of people and plot threads to keep track of, and there’s an argument for saying a little less might have been more – on thinking back the breadcrumbs were there, had I only been looking at what was really there rather than being distracted by what someone wanted me to look at.
As with Penn and Teller, the US magicians who take great delight in revealing the secrets to some of their tricks, knowing how it was done doesn’t spoil the enjoyment – rather, it makes you feel part of the secret. I know how the flag is concealed, but still applaud the moment it “vanishes” in a shower of sparks; I enjoy learning a novel’s secrets and then applying that knowledge retrospectively. And I will, as I love the flag trick despite having seen it a dozen times, love re-reading Dukes Halt even though I know the who and why: because it isn’t the secret that is important, it’s the performance – it’s the characters and their interactions that take me back to a book time and again.
Taking Danny out of his comfort zone and pushing himself as a writer – “trying it without a parachute”, as Farrell refers to it in the dedication – has paid off in spades, and if you’ll forgive the mixed metaphor, the only way is up.
Derek Farrell is the author of five novels and one novella in the Danny Bird series, all published by Fahrenheit Press. The books have been described as “Like The Thin Man meets Will & Grace”, “Like MC Beaton on MDMA”, and – by Eric Idle – as “Quite Fun”. Derek’s jobs have included burger dresser, bank teller, David Bowie’s paperboy, and investment banker, and he has lived and worked in New York, Hong Kong, Istanbul, Tel Aviv, Prague, Dublin, Johannesburg and London. He’s married to the most English man on the planet and lives in West Sussex. They have no goats, chickens, children or pets, but they do have every Kylie Minogue record ever made.