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HFC Editorial Review of "The Custard Corpses" by M. J. Porter

Review

The advertisements were mostly brightly coloured, offering only a glimpse of a child, male or female, carrying out some sort of physical activity. And yet, the children's poses were just about identical, although they were all very much alive in the drawings for the custard company.


This novel is described as a “delicious” 1940s mystery, but the only thing delicious about the storyline is the link to the custard ads in the Picture Post magazine that Chief Inspector Mason’s wife spends her days perusing. Not to say the story isn’t an intriguing read, but a story about a child serial killer is quite a difficult one to swallow. The “creepy” factor is definitely there in this story.


This is M. J. Porter’s first dive into the historical mystery arena of WWII, having spent much time in her 9th-century world of her other books, and she does a remarkable job in the transition. The dialogue is quite captivating and natural, as is the setting yet I almost wish a little depth and detail had been added about WWII, especially as you come to know about the Inspector’s son fighting in the war. There were times I had to remind myself that the setting was in 1943.


In 1943, in Birmingham England, the Chief Inspector reflects on the world around him, a world in the midst of war, his own son fighting on the front, and a wife immersing herself into her periodicals to pass the time. And locally, he is still dealing with a twenty-five year old unsolved crime, with the anniversary of the local Erdington boy opening the story. The boy’s sister comes by the station on her yearly visits just to ask if anything new has developed, and the answer is always no. Only this time, she brings a newspaper clipping with her that suddenly sends Mason on a quest to reopen the case and delve into other possible links across the United Kingdom. One by one, the cases roll in... and before long, ten children all fit the description of similar killings, over a span of decades.


The case haunts Mason, just as it did with his former boss who died with the cold case weighing him down. Yet, after this discovery (no spoilers) Mason is on a whirlwind ride, with trips to Scotland and London, from small towns to the storerooms of Sotheby’s, each avenue helping him delve deeper into the unfurling secrets... all leading to the mysterious custard ads in the magazine, each depicting a young child in a sports-related theme. The ads are drawings of the children from the crime scenes... all drowned and “placed” on dry ground. No suspects, and no witnesses. Yet, some details were overlooked in a time period way before computers or reliable crime-scene photography... details Mason catches with the help of his assistant, O’Rourke, and an artistic Scotsman named Hamish.


These characters are very well fleshed out and I enjoyed the passion and skill they had for the case, plus the teamwork they displayed in getting to the bottom of this horrendous crime. Mason is the kind of policeman that you want on a case – dedicated, with a knack for organizing clues in a way to bring resolution, and one who is not content until a crime is solved. While very professional, he allows the compassion he feels for the families and for the children to push him forward. Also, the author does a remarkable job of weaving the clues into the story without giving too much away to begin with and allowing the reader to ponder the possible outcome without being the type of story which reveals the obvious from the very beginning. This is quite the Agatha Christie-type story, with one caveat.


While the story is firmly grounded on the investigation, leading you down the path to resolution, the ultimate motive for why the perpetrator commits the murders left me a little flat. Don’t get me wrong, I see the connection the author delivered (no spoilers) but, to be honest, I wanted a little more about the whys... about the person behind the acts. What caused someone to go from sketching children to murder? And how did the “art commission” the person received inspire such violence? The investigation is quite clever and logical... as is the main characters, but the murderer remains foggy in my mind after I read the last line. Also, there was no clear arc to the story leading to a high climax, as in a lot of historical mysteries, but just a well-thought-out resolution like putting a puzzle together, the pieces fitting together to reveal the picture. And perhaps, this was the author’s intention, as art imitates life... sometimes things are resolved, and sometimes things are not. I suppose when dealing with the dismal abyss of WWII, even a serial killer is overshadowed by an even greater monster. Based mainly on the cleverness of the storyline, the succinct structure, and development of the narrative, even without a heart-thumping climax, “The Custard Corpses” by M. J. Porter has earned a four-star rating from The Historical Fiction Company.


*****


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