The Funeral Birds (Murder! Mystery! Mayhem! Book #3)
Paula R.C. Readman
I love anything that comes out from Demain Publishing, as they’re one of the best Horror publishers that I’ve come across in all my years reviewing titles in the genre. They’ve achieved that distinction through a deeply impressive process of combining high-quality writing, distinct and artfully-composed covers by Adrian Baldwin, and carefully-curated content. They’re perhaps best known for Horror titles, of which I’ve reviewed many, but I’m incredibly pleased to see that the publisher is expanding into other genres; that’s always a positive sign for a publisher, an indication that they’re doing well, and I was eager to see what they were releasing in their new imprints through 2020. Back in 2019 during my #DemainDecember event, I’d reviewed Maggie of My Heart by Alyson Faye, the first title in Demain’s new Murder! Mystery! Mayhem! imprint, and found it to be a gritty 1940s noir novelette that reinterpreted the femme fatale trope and gave it back its agency in the process. Having now reviewed Paul M. Feeney’s excellent occult detective novelette Cursed, I decided to keep up to date with the entire imprint by reading and reviewing the last of the currently released titles.
The last title was Paula R.C. Readman’s The Funeral Birds, once again featuring a cracking piece of cover art from Adrian Baldwin, with a monochrome owl looming, in a slightly menacing manner, out from one side of the cover. The back-cover blurb certainly sounded promising: Dave Cavendish is a private detective close to retirement, only to suddenly encounter a mysterious new client with a strange case involving owls, a dead body and a centuries-old mystery. Fortunately, Dave has his wife to support him, not to mention the four hundred-year old spirit of his ancient relative, Granny Wenlock, to forewarn and guide him, as the case twists and turns. It all sounded like a delightfully bizarre set-up for a detective tale, with an unusual occult twist in the shape of Granny Wenlock, and I looked forward to seeing what Readman could deliver.
The story begins with Dave starting his day by ascending to his office, in the attic of a house and debating internally whether or not to just pack in the whole private detective gig. (As an aside, can I just say how refreshing it as a reader to not have a P.I. who has an office above a Chinese restaurant or office block or something? It’s a small touch, but a welcome one, and to me demonstrates just how much thought Readman has put into her storytelling). It isn’t a business that brings in a steady influx of funds, especially as soft-hearted Dave often doesn’t charge clients who seem especially grateful or relieved at having their problems resolved. And on top of that, there’s the ever-present problem of centuries-dead Granny Wenlock, and the psychic powers Dave somehow inherited from her. It’s certainly not the usual basis for a detective thriller, occult or otherwise, and that originality is one of the key reasons I enjoyed The Funeral Birds so much: there’s a distinct feeling, as you read through the novelette, that Readman wanted to do something other than churn out a generic detective thriller.
On the verge of closing for the day, Dave is suddenly confronted with an unexpected client, a rich and glamorous young woman who offers him a bizarre case involving owls, a dead body buried by a ruined church, and a curious refusal to call the authorities. Deciding something is better than nothing, Dave visits the client’s property and looks for the body; but when he catches sight of it, his attempts to call the police are rebuffed, and instead he’s paid off in an apparent attempt to hush the matter up. Tempted into investigating further by the curiosity of his wife Joan, the local schoolmistress, husband and wife travel to the ruins of the Church, only to become embroiled in a murder investigation. Questions without answers soon begin to pile up – why was the client so unwilling to call the police? Who does the body belong to, exactly? And why was Dave seemingly set up to take the fall for the murder? The duo take it in their stride, and are soon burrowing into the sordid details of marriages, divorces, missing spouses, and an expensive ring belonging to a woman dead for several centuries.
It all becomes somewhat complex, reminiscent of a better-quality episode of Midsomer Murders as relationships are uncovered and hidden details brought to life by Dave and Joan, but Readman handles it all in a deft and assured manner, bringing the story to life in an entertaining and smoothly-paced manner. The heart of the story is the relationship between husband and wife, as they pool their skills, knowledge and intellect together to sort through the myriad clues and evidence that they expose during their investigation. The closeness of the relationship between Dave and Joan, their love for each other, and the way they spark off of each other to discover clues about the murder that form the core of the narrative, forms a sort of bond with the reader that makes The Funeral Birds such an enthralling and enjoyable story to follow along with. They feel like a real married couple, down to the little quirks and habits each one has, and I couldn’t help but be amused at the way in which Dave slowly realizes that his wife’s job as headmistress gives her surprising links to the community that she can leverage for information. And while the influence of Granny Wenlock was subtle, it was an interesting take on the use of occult powers; didn’t overwhelm the rest of the story or its pace, and left enough subtle clues that could be expanded upon in future stories.
The Funeral Birds is an absolute delight to read, a smoothly-paced and tightly-plotted murder-mystery thriller, bolstered by the shrewd decision by Readman to make a husband and wife team the focus of the story. Dave and Joan really bring the story to life, giving it an energy and focus that raises it above other titles in such a crowded genre, and a unique charm that I really can’t remember seeing elsewhere. I thoroughly enjoyed The Funeral Birds and look forward to seeing where Readman and Demain take the concept next.