It is now a genuine surprise to me when I come across
a series of Britmyst books by a living author which I really like
and was previously unknown to me. During the
second half of last year I came across several writers
hitherto unknown to me, and I hope to write of
some of these later. But the one which really stood
out was Eileen Dewhurst’s Phyllida Moon series.
I had read one of Dewhurst’s non-Moon books
previously and had not enjoyed it, so this series
came as all the more of a surprise.

A good summary of Eileen Dewhurst’s career and her
writing may be found at…

http://www.twbooks.co.uk/crimescene/edewhurstme.html

although this article appears to only reach up to 1996.

The Phyllida Moon series comprises to date 8 books –
Now You See Her 1995
Verdict on Winter 1996
Roundabout 1998
Double Act 2000
Closing Stages 2001
No Love Lost 2001
Easeful Death 2002
Naked Witness 2003

I have read all of these except Easeful Death.

In the opening book of the series – Now You See Her –
Phyllida Moon is an actress in a small repertory company
which is finishing up a season in Seaminster, Dewhurst’s
fictional South-coast seaside town. At the same time she
ends her marriage to her philandering husband – having
finally tired of his philandering – and accepts a role in
a television detective series. To acquire some background
for this role, and for something to fill her time, she gets herself
taken on by a private detective agency in Seaminster – the
Peter Piper Detective Agency. By the end of the book
she has decided that she very much likes detection –
and she therefore, through the rest of the series, continues
to work for the agency, buying a house in Seaminster.

The books, therefore, follow a classic series format – each
centres round a different case, but there is the on-going matter
of Phyllida’s personal life and that of a supporting cast,
most noticeably Peter Piper (owner of the agency) and
Chief Superintendent Kendrick (main police character).

What makes these books different? Well chiefly Phyllida
Moon’s modus operandum. She operates by disguise. The
theory is that she uses her actresses’ training to create
a range of characters who in one way or another get close
to the suspects. Martin Edwards remarks in his appreciation
that….

>>Few, if any, contemporary crime novelists can be as preoccupied
as Dewhurst with questions of identity.<<

It will be seen that the Phyllida Moon series and her modus operandum
offer Dewhurst ample rein for indulging this preoccupation. And it is
explored in all sorts of ways. There is the simply sociological –
the way that when she is a plain, middle-aged woman she is
ignored, the way that when she is a siren men react to her, the way
that class and nationality (she often uses an American persona)
affect reactions. But there is also the psychological – Phyllida
comes to question her own identity as she loses herself in so
many roles. Her identities are both a way of protecting her from
the world, but they also become imprisoning as she feels she
is losing her own identity. Finally there is, of course, the
narrative – the device allows Dewhurst to get Phyllida close
to the action, and naturally some situations of personal
jeopardy arise.

Obviously these are not books in the realist tradition – the
levels of disguise which Phyllida achieves are somewhat
unbelievable. Nor are they ‘mean streets’ books (Seaminster
doesn’t really have any). Dewhurst herself has said…

>>my chief concern is human relationships and
everyday life–out of which the frightening, the suspenseful, the
mysterious can arise with peculiar shock.<<

I do not want to convey the impression that the books
are similar to one another; this is not true. Each has
a strong individual identity and each has – to a greater
or lesser degree – a central mystery. The most extreme
in terms of both stylistic departure and the nature of
the crime is Closing Stages, which intersperses the main
narrative with the first person diary of the criminal.
Dewhurst is interested in both the young – a couple of
books feature teenage girls – and the old. She is interested
in families and their dysfunction. Just as Moon’s own identity
is ever-changing, so are the view we take of many of
her character’ identities.

While I am impressed with Dewhurst’s narrative skill
and construction, the main feature of this series for me
is its’ individuality and indeed uniqueness. There are of
course many writers who have had their detectives disguise
themselves but none (that I know of) who have used this
to produce such a concentrated musing on identity itself.
This makes the books sound heavy which they are not.
You can read them at several levels. This is another peculiar
charm. When I come across something which strikes me
as genuinely original in the Britmyst sphere I do get excited –
Dewhurst’s Moon series is the first that has struck me
as genuinely original for several years.

One final remark – this is a series which it would repay
reading in order as Phyllida’s personal life develops
sequentially (obviously!).

(March 2007)

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