Book Review of The Skull Beneath the Skin (Cordelia Gray, Bk 2)

The Skull Beneath the Skin  (Cordelia Gray, Bk 2)
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Helpful Score: 1


"This is a storybook killing: a close circle of suspects, isolated scene of crime conveniently cut off from the mainland, known terminus a quo and terminus ad quem," remarks one of the suspects in this book, and he has hit upon the strength of the plot. All the suspects have motives for both the poison pen letters and the murder: who was the culprit? Was there a separate culprit for the letters and the murder? Perhaps the letters were sent by more than one person? The armchair detective gets a lot of bang out of this mystery!

I read this right after finishing the first Cordelia Gray mystery. After the fuss James made in her Author's Note for "An Unsuitable Job for a Woman" about setting the mystery in the real town of Cambridge and not fabricating a cutesy "Oxbridge" setting, I was surprised that "Skull" is set in a completely fictional locale. Of course the island of Courcy is made-up, the little island with its castle and intricate history and geography is a custom setting for the mystery. But the island is reached from the nearby coastal town of Speymouth in Dorset, and James describes Cordelia's sunny walk from the train station to the wharf so vividly that I went straight to Google to find a photo of the statue of Queen Victoria there, only to find there is no such place as "Speymouth."

This book was published ten years after the first Cordelia Gray mystery and according to the dates mentioned in the book, it is set around 1981 when it was written, so about ten years have elapsed in Cordelia's life since the first book. It doesn't really feel like a decade has elapsed, though. Cordelia was 22 in the first book so she must be about 32 in this book, but the other characters treat her like a very young woman. In fact when Lady Ralston tells her stepson about the "girl" she's bringing to the island, she tells him how nice it will be for him to have "someone young on the island for you to practice talking to." It's hard to imagine a 17-year-old finding a 32-year-old "young." Maybe this just goes to show how superannuated all the other characters are (except the stepson of course!). Cordelia's life hasn't changed much, though, nor her perspectives and attitudes, as far as I could tell. It would be easy to imagine that this book was set a year or two after the first.

I give the book a mediocre rating primarily due to my lack of enthusiasm for Cordelia as a character. I don't understand sometimes why she says and does what she does. She spends her first evening on the island with her nose in Sherlock Holmes stories in the library when I think she should have been mingling with the other guests to try to get information about who might have sent the poison pen letters. Truly, I don't think Lady Ralston was getting her money's worth! Lady Ralston is another enigmatic personality, her peculiarities can't be explained other than by saying she is an actress so she has these little eccentricities. (Which are essential to the plot, by the way.)