Book Review

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The Chaplin Conspiracy, by Stewart Ferris

This is the third book in the Ballashiels Mysteries series; the previous one, The Dalí Diaries, was reviewed here; and to clarify the confusion expressed in the earlier review, the first book in this series was The Sphinx Scrolls. The latest story continues seamlessly, without a moment’s pause, from its predecessor, so there has to be a minimal amount of biographical information about the characters given for the benefit of readers who have come to this entrant in the series unprepared. The presentation of this book is very similar to that of the earlier one, apart from the page numbers looking more elegant, but that is as far as I will go here; other than to commend the change of printing to a British firm. The core characters are the same, apart from one somewhat bizarre, and rather random [using the modern definition] addition: Rat Scabies, the erstwhile drummer in The Damned, who is in this book as the greatest expert in Britain on the subject of a late nineteenth century French priest, by the name of Bérenger Saunière, who was reputed to have died a millionaire in 1917, without revealing the location of his fabulous wealth—hence the adventurers’ fanatical interest.

One has to assume that the author must have more than merely a fan’s devotion to inspire him to use this plot device; perhaps, given that he is a relatively young man, he might know the musician personally through some circumstance, other than being a devotee of the music; unfortunately the explanation for this is non-existent: there is only a very brief expression of gratitude on the front flyleaf “for agreeing to take part in this book”, with his website URL. I know very little about the musician, despite being aware of some of the group’s output in its heyday, so whether this is a plausible career/lifestyle choice for him is impossible to know: musicians do progress to other, perhaps more rewarding activities, subsequent to their fleeting appearance in the limelight, but this one is undoubtedly esoteric! This knowledge is called upon, because the priest is fleetingly seen to have appeared in a short, amateur film found by Lord ‘Ratty’ Ballashiels in an attic room, featuring the eponymous Chaplin, but in a year when the priest was reputed to have been dead for some time: naturally, this intrigues the treasure-seekers, seeing this as some sort of clue, so they set off to France and, of course, this is where their troubles start. These troubles include two new characters: American treasure-hunters, and one of them is coldly murderous.

Unfortunately, Ratty has a deadline: his beloved, but ancient & crumbling mansion is scheduled to be demolished in under a week’s time, to make way for a new motorway; this is not the only circumstance in which Ratty feels his life bears an uncomfortable similarity to the plot of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; he is also wanted for questioning by the British police about the discovery of a dead body, after the wing of the mansion in which the film was viewed was consumed by fire, because the old & dangerously flammable film stock burst into flames during a repeat viewing. Perhaps it was simply familiarity with the characters which made this instalment a somewhat more enjoyable read; there is humour, as before, but it is leavened by the jeopardy of the situations in which the protagonists find themselves, which are probably only very slightly contrived. The plot does stray into Dan Brown territory, but that is not necessarily a bad thing in itself. I don’t think revealing that this narrative ends on a clear indication of a further instalment should spoil the plot in any way: as for when this further publication might become available to an eager readership, there is no way of knowing—there is no helpful “coming soon” synopsis, or introductory chapter taster, at the end of the book to inform us. The paperback version I read was published, as previously, by Accent Press Ltd., Cardiff, in 2018, ISBN 978-1-786-15185-8.

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