I received a request to read/review 'Beyond Belief' by Helen Smith around Christmas holidays last year. As of January 28th the book has become available in paperback, audio and ebook editions and I am happy to write in that this latest addition to the Emily Castles Mystery series, is just as light-hearted and engaging as ever.
This time, Emily Castles lands a gig with the Royal Society for the Exploration of Science and Culture to attend their annual conference being held in Torquay entitled 'Belief and Beyond'. The society will have for the first time in its history, extended the invitation to mediums, hypnotists and psychics. Emily's mission? Hired by the society's current president Gerald Ayode, she is there to investigate the possible threat to the conference's main attraction and 'super star' Edmund Zenon who is offering a £50,000 reward to anyone who can prove the existence of the paranormal. A well-known rationalist, he is not only a TV celebrity hoping to plug his book at the conference but his tour is aptly entitled 'Don't Believe the Hype'. Quite an inflammatory title at a conference that specialises in nothing but the paranormal.
The setting for the novel is The Seaview Hotel in Torquay aptly named for its location. It is in the waters of Torquay that Zenon has promised his audience, who are gathering in this seaside village from near and far, the most amazing gig on Earth: he will walk on water. And so enter a wide range of amusing (the colonel) and the not so amusing (Madame Nova) and even sinister characters who are all hoping to witness the moment Zenon delivers on his promise.
By now readers of Helen Smith will be expecting a diverse list of eccentric characters and she does not fail to deliver. There is never a dull moment as the characters battle each other for attention. There is murder, fortune-telling, a prophecy, and a very memorable baptism scene. And, of course, there is philosophy professor, Dr. Muriel Crowther, who is like the 'Watson' to our female 'Sherlock'.
Helen Smith's 'Beyond Belief', a whodunnit in all sense of the word, touches upon sensitive, humane issues such as ordinary people's need for the paranormal and the reason people feed into the hype of fortune tellers, psychics, and mediums. It also highlights how wrong it could all go and how easily some take advantage to prey and exploit people's vulnerabilities at a time of loss, bereavement and loneliness. It highlights how people's fears, anxieties, hopes and dreams are feeding an industry, whether authentic in its claims or not, that is constantly expanding and that is proving hard to ignore.
Finally, let me tell you why I like Helen Smith and why you should read her books. It's simple: Helen Smith is an author who listens to her readers. When those readers loved Emily Castles from the word go and asked to know more about her, Helen Smith was listening. In 'Beyond Belief' she creates settings that allow her main character the opportunity to connect with the reader. We glimpse a more intimate, possibly romantic side to Emily that was lacking in the previous book. I do believe she has a lot of growing up to do as a character and I do think there is more to her than the author is letting on. And best of all? Emily's a South London girl. Enough said!
To know more about Helen Smith, click HERE.
Winnie Kraster is an American book blogger who has just received an invitation from the Romance Writers of Great Britain (RWGB) to attend their annual conference held in London. Author of blog 'Tallulah's Treasures' Winnie is over the moon regarding the invitation as validation of her rising status in the blogosphere and confirmation that her reviews have been taken seriously by her favourite writers Polly Penham and Morgana Blakely who are among the RWGB's membership committee. Unfortunately for Winnie, her happiness is short-lived as she is found murdered only a few hours after she lands in Heathrow airport.
And so cue a murder mystery that would be incomplete without a cast of colourful characters with big egos and even bigger secrets to hide. Welsh fifty-something author Cerys Pugh from Cardiff whose hate for Winnie's blog is outspoken and holds all bloggers in contempt. Archie Mears, the slim mid-thirties writer who refuses to speak of his past, has dark dreams, lives with a fear of being trapped by fire or water and whose poetic looks betray the fact that he would "strike back speedily and effectively if provoked". North London sensual romance writer Zena, and self-proclaimed "North London Goddess" interested in nature continuously burning incense at an altar, physically intimidating and who reveals in an interview that she is "not afraid to strike at someone or something that is holding her back". Polly Penham, a soft spoken, friendly writer who has found fame and fortune and is the envy of everyone but is known for her dramatic episodes and conspiracy theories. Morgana Blakely, self-absorbed president of the RWGB's organising committee who is used to always getting her way even if it means tweaking some truths here and there.
And then there is Emily Castles, our amateur sleuth, who is a free lancer working the odd job here and there and who reminded me of a slightly older Nancy Drew. Other than the fact that she had just completed a job in Canary Wharf (her comment on the elevators rings so true), that she lives in South London occasionally looking after her neighbour's cat when they are away and that she is at the conference to assist Morgana Blakely there is little more that we are told about her. Emily is a no-nonsense likeable twenty six year-old woman, with a dry sense of humour, sharp wit and an equally sharp eye for details. Helen Smith takes it for granted perhaps that readers would already be familiar with Castles from the Emily Castles Mysteries, which unfortunately I myself have not read. It is equally important to stress here that this in no way impacts or detracts from the story but is merely an observation on my part. It is also worth noting that 'Invitation to Die' is the first full-length book in the Emily Castles mystery series and it has just been published by Thomas & Mercer in paperback and as an ebook. Smith has already published two novellas in the series, Three Sisters and Showstoppers.
This short novel packs a rather long list of characters that Helen Smith manages to mix together in the most effortless way coming up with a very convincing plot. Every one is potentially a plausible suspect even if not part of the RWGB crowd such as the chocolatier Monsieur Cyril Loman owner of one of the most prestigious chocolate shops in Knightsbridge who cannot let go of what he has witnessed in his past life before seeking asylum in the UK at the age of fifteen. Hotel manager Nik Kovacevic's ambition is to prove his worth at his new job and therefore willing to do what it takes to please his superiors and secure a bigger promotion.
The novel is very entertaining, gripping and fast paced with laugh-out loud moments (my favourite was to do with Nik, chefs and pickles). My only wish was that it were longer. However, I have no doubt that 'Invitation to Die' will instigate many a discussion around the blogger vs author relationship, which if the retort is anything to go by can be quite fiery and challenging. Helen Smith has conjured up an imaginary scenario where she has tried for the sake of fairness to include representations of various characters from the literary world (writers, bloggers, publishers, etc) - hence the diverse and long list of characters - offering up an insight to what they might say or do when they have to spend an entire weekend together (it gave me the feeling of being a fly on the wall). But the story has a major advantage in the parts where it deals with why people write what they write (be it books or blogs), rituals of writing (Archie) and how to clear the mind for the creative process (Zena). There are lessons to be learnt there people.
Judgements, accusations, secrets and lies abound and yet this is one conference I'd love to attend provided I (the blogger) may be allowed to live to tell my tale.
Helen Smith is an English novelist and dramatist. She's a member of the Writers' Guild of Great Britain, English PEN and the Society of Authors. She lives in London. Check out her website 'The Emperor's Clothes' HERE.