Christian mystery is flawed, but still fun

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 18, 2008

By Cynthia Murphy
For the Salisbury Post
As a little girl, I absolutely loved mystery novels.
When I was in the second grade, I read most of the original Nancy Drew series under the covers with my tiny pink flashlight.
I was thoroughly convinced that my parents couldn’t see the bright beams of light escaping from my room long after my bedtime.
Eventually, I gave up reading by flashlight and progressed to the works of Agatha Christie and Erle Stanley Gardner. Throughout high school and college, mysteries fell by the wayside for me as I focused on all of my other reading. Once in a while I would sneak in a quick mystery as a sort of escape. As I’ve gotten older, I still occasionally find myself looking for a good mystery novel every now and then.
When I first picked up Gilbert Morris’s “The Mermaid in the Basement,” I did not know what to expect. This is the first novel in the new Lady Trent series. “The Mermaid in the Basement” is described as a Christian mystery set in Victorian England. The cast of characters is somewhat colorful, and the title is certainly intriguing. (You do have to read most of the book for the title to make sense.)
If you are looking for a gritty, hard-boiled detective story with lots of action and adventure, this is not the book for you. Even the criminals seem squeaky clean for a mystery. However, if you simply want a light, easy read with interesting characters, then you’ll probably enjoy this work.
The plot focuses on the murder of a beautiful young actress named Kate Fairfield. Although Kate has quite a reputation for toying with men, the police quickly arrest Clive Newton for the murder. His sister, Lady Serafina Trent, vows to find the true killer. Clive’s newfound friend, Dylan Tremayne, offers to assist Serafina’s efforts. At first they seem like an odd team. Serafina is an aristocratic scientist, while Dylan is an actor with a criminal past. He also has a tendency to espouse his Christian beliefs. In contrast, Serafina puts her faith solely in science.
As the story unfolds, Serafina and Dylan learn how to help each other. They actually make a good team. Serafina has the necessary education, while Dylan has some very useful criminal connections. As the investigation unfolds, they find themselves dealing with a seemingly unbreakable code and a growing mutual attraction.
Parts of the action are somewhat predictable. But it is an enjoyable read, and the discovery of the true killer provides one of the most exciting moments in the novel.
This is a character-driven mystery. Morris focuses most of his character development on Serafina and Dylan. They are a study in contrasts. At times, the differences seem too simplistic. Serafina’s adamant reliance on scientific reasoning and Dylan’s frequent professions of his faith just seem too obvious at times.Morris does create interesting backgrounds for his characters. Dylan has a criminal past that affects the action in a number of ways. Serafina conceals a shocking secret that shapes much of her behavior. Her secret is finally revealed late in the novel.
Some of the supporting characters, such as Serafina’s father, contribute to both the development of Serafina and Dylan and provide brief moments of humor. One of the more intriguing characters in “The Mermaid in the Basement” is actually the victim, Kate Fairfield. She appears only briefly in the novel, but she makes a vivid impression. More of her story emerges as the novel progresses and the motive for her murder becomes apparent.
One of the flaws in “The Mermaid in the Basement” is its pace. The pace of the novel is not consistent. Morris spends a lot of time on seemingly useless exposition. As the mystery unravels, the pace picks up. But then it slows down again as a few minor subplots appear. Then the story speeds to its conclusion.
Overall, “The Mermaid in the Basement” is an enjoyable novel. Its inconsistent pace is easy to overlook in light of its fun aspects. The plot is interesting and the characters are likeable. It’s a nice little escape on a cold afternoon.
Cynthia Murphy reads voraciously.