What to read after finishing a gut-wrenching, action-filled Star Wars novel? How about a little light mystery? Smashing idea! I was able to obtain the two latest Aunt Dimity mysteries by Nancy Atherton. Aunt Dimity and the Next of Kin was first on the stack, so I plowed through it. Actually, plowed isn't the right word. Perhaps traipsed? Yes, the book is that flimsy. Enjoyable as it was, if I wasn't holding it in my hands, it probably would have fluttered away on the breeze flowing through my apartment. But is it good, you ask? If you like a mystery that's less dense than the proverbial "cozy" mystery (and those are pretty thin at times), then you'll love it. It's good, but not really my cup of tea.
Lori Shepherd is an American woman living with her nice lawyer-husband in Finch, a small English village outside of Oxford. She is rich but contributes to various causes and helps out around the town, going into Oxford to help at the homeless shelter, picking up trash at the church with her two young sons, and volunteering at the hospital. There she visits patients who don't have family or friends, and that is how she meets Elizabeth Beacham, a terminally ill woman whose only family is a brother who seems to have disappeared years ago. Lori becomes determined to track down this brother who couldn't even be bothered to visit, and with the help of one of Beacham's neighbors begins unraveling the mystery. Lori thought she was a lonely old woman living from hand to mouth, but the reality is much different. As always, the ghost of Aunt Dimity plays the sounding board to Lori's problems and theories, until the truth finally comes out.
The concept behind the Aunt Dimity series is kind of cute, with Lori coming home to talk to the ghost who communicates through the act of writing in a special journal. It's intriguing but ultimately doesn't mask the utter silliness of the plot. There is no real tension to the story, and not much meat, either. If there was, we wouldn't need the subplot of Lori playing matchmaker for Beacham's neighbor. And isn't it a nice coincidence that the perfect suitor presents herself while they are trying to figure the case out! What little conflict exists in the story is wrapped up nice and tidy at story’s end; Lori has found out the truth and must get her two cents in before leaving the scene and even that is over in a few paragraphs. What is amusing about this lack of tension is the number of times that Atherton ends a chapter on what appears to be an ominous note, only to have any shred of anxiety dissipate within the first paragraph of the next chapter.
There is really nothing wrong with a nice story about nice characters who have a flaw or two, but no outstandingly bad traits. Yes, Lori can have a bit of a temper, but the only time it really asserts itself, she quickly realizes she has been rude and moves to apologize. The other time it emerges is during the comeuppance at the end, where the story has justified it. And that is the perfect word for this book: nice. It is a pleasant read, not very taxing and even fun at times. The interplay between Lori and Gabriel (the neighbor) is nicely done, if sometimes a bit forced. Aunt Dimity is neat, too, when she is in the book (which isn't all that often, considering her name’s prominence on the front cover - she should sue for more screen time). She is wise and always helpful, and Atherton captures her small English-village sensibility perfectly. In fact, she captures the entire village, making Finch a place I'd really like to spend time in (though I'm probably much too reserved for all the busybodies that live there).
A few other problems mar Next of Kin. First is the fact that Lori really doesn't do that much to solve the puzzle; a lot of information just falls into her lap. Her friend Emma searches the Internet for information on the brother, a couple of her homeless charges provide her with information on where he used to live, and Dimity provides the perfect clue that opens up everything (maybe that is why her name is in the title…). Lori has the wrong idea almost from the outset and refuses to think otherwise until she finds out the real situation.
The second problem is that it is hard to buy the setup to this story at all. We are led to believe that Miss Beacham set up the beginning of the trail of clues for Lori to sniff out, based on the knowledge that Lori has told her that she likes mysteries and has solved a few in the past. That's fine. However, Miss Beacham never leaves her sick-bed at the hospital, so how could she do this? She must have had some outside help to plant everything just right. Sure, the ending of the book explains it to the reader, but for somebody as supposedly intelligent as Lori, that should have been the first question on her mind. How did Miss Beacham do this, and who helped her?
Ultimately, though, I didn't feel like I wasted my time with Next of Kin. It won't take that much time to read for any but the slowest reader, and will be a satisfactory tonic for someone who just wants a really quiet book.