Neither headaches nor hurricanes are powerful enough to pull me from the pages of a good mystery, yet I set aside Written in Red on my own accord somewhere in the fifth chapter – but only to add the first book of Annie Dalton’s Oxford Dogwalkers Mystery series to my TBR list. As soon as I had done so, I picked up where I’d left off and read straight through–despite a growing headache and, so I’m told, violent thunderstorms outside (a factor, no doubt, in the headache). This award-winning YA author has created a multi-layered mystery with story lines that twist and wrap like a leash attached to a capricious canine.
From the publisher: Shortly before Christmas, Professor James Lowell is found brutally attacked in his rooms at Walsingham College, where Anna Hopkins works as an administrator. Baffled as to why anyone would wish to harm such a gentle, scholarly man, Anna discovers that Lowell had a connection with her fellow dogwalker, Isadora Salzman, who knew him as an undergraduate in the 1960s, a co-member of the so-called Oxford Six. It turns out that Isadora has been keeping a surprising secret all these years. But someone else knows about Isadora’s secret: someone who has sent her a threatening, frightening letter. Could the attack on Professor Lowell have its roots in a 50-year-old murder? And who is targeting Isadora and the surviving members of the Oxford Six? Anna, Isadora and Tansy, the dogwalking detectives, make it their business to find out.
For me, the novel has two flaws: Too little restraint with “four-lettered” words that became tiresome, rather than effective, by the middle of the mystery and an over-tidiness in a late and otherwise dramatic scene that left me somewhat, just a tiny bit, less eager to read the next one.
I still have Book One – The White Shepherd – on my To-Be-Read list and I still look forward to a third book in this series, but less is very much more when it comes to salty speech for readers like me who don’t encounter these words in our everyday lives and don’t care to add them to our everyday vocabularies. Less can be more when it comes to tension, too. If you pull too tightly, even a strong strap of leather will snap and you may be left holding a broken leash in one hand while watching a four-legged friend rush toward potential dangers.
Dalton shows she has the talent, though, to stitch the pieces back together, and I expect nothing less when Anna, Isadora, and Tansy return to Oxford’s Port Meadow to walk Bonnie (the beautiful White Shepherd with a past as traumatic as Anna’s own) and Hero (Isadora’s half-spaniel, half-terrier puppy) for a third time.
These delightful dogs are among the many pleasures to be found within the pages of Written in Red, and dog lovers in particular will want to devour this series. The dogs are characters in their own right, as beautifully drawn as the portraits Anna’s grandfather paints of them, as well as devices Dalton uses to breathe life into her two-legged characters. For example, consider one of the benefits Anna derives from sharing her home and her life with Bonnie:
“When you have a dog, you can say, ‘I need to go out and walk Fido now,’ and nobody thinks you’re strange. Whereas saying ‘I urgently need to be by myself . . .’ made you sound as if you were somewhere along the spectrum.”
Anna herself is a mystery, a mystery that begins to unfold in the first book in the series and continues in the second, a mystery that Dalton holds out as a reward for following her further and further into the series. The relationships between the continuing characters provide further enticement to keep reading. And the writing is good enough to be its own reward.
Note: In obedience of federal regulations, Sis must disclose that she received an advanced reading copy courtesy of Severn House, the publisher, through NetGalley in exchange for an independent and unbiased review of the novel. The biases here are Sis’s and Sis’s alone – no one has attempted to influence her review or her writing . . . except her reliable editor, who serves as a faithful watchdog against errors without attempting to affect Sis’s views.