Sheer Folly - Carola Dunn A delightful romp and a worthy addition to the series. The premise is simple: Daisy and her friend, photographer Lucy, visit an estate of a rich manufacturer of the bathroom tubs and basins. He has a rare folly – a grotto – on his property, and they are planning to include the folly’s photos and description in their upcoming book on British follies.
Upon arrival to the plumbing tycoon’s house, Appsworth, they meet a fascinating cast of characters, guests and residents of the place, and the first half of the novel is spent in various interactions between those characters. With ultimate skills, the author develops a bunch of interconnected relationships between the mismatched participants of her tale. Their antiques are a treat for the readers. We laugh at their jokes. We wince at their rudeness. We sympathize. We scorn. We learn.
We feel privileged, almost invited to the house, eavesdropping shamelessly and drawing our own conclusions, while the party at Appsworth, all strangers brought together by circumstance, demonstrates the entire range of complex emotions. Love and hostility, envy and jealousy, resentment and class antagonism – they all boil in a cauldron of motivations and sentiments, all centered one way or another on the grotto of Daisy’s book. The passions seethe unchecked, the tensions are rising to the unbearable heights, and eventually the grotto explodes – literally – half way through the novel.
During the explosion, one member of the party is killed. The investigation that follows involves Daisy and her husband, the Chief Inspector of Scotland Yard Alec Fletcher, but that part of the novel is not nearly as compelling as the first, where various interplays are unfolding.
One particular trend of the era (the year is 1926) is worth mentioning: the evolving dynamics between the members of British aristocracy and the rising social group of wealthy industrialists. While the latter have enough money to buy their way upward, the former resent the new reality. These new social conflicts pave the way for many a writer, and Dunn makes use of them in a superbly entertaining way.
Here is a conversation Daisy has with one of the guests, a Lord. They talk about their commoner host, and even Daisy, the most democratic of those born into the nobility, is not immune to his snobbery, although this snatch of their chat definitely inspires a smile:
“…Rebuilding a ruined grotto is hardly a practical act. If you ask me, it shows he has a distinctly romantic streak.” [Daisy said.]
“A romantic plumber! Dreadful thought.”
“It does rather boggle the mind,” Daisy agreed laughing.

Another revealing, laugh-provoking quote. One of the guests, an extremely rude, thick-skinned earl, nicknamed very aptly Rhino, insults another guest and doesn’t even notice it.
It was left to Julia to utter what everyone was thinking. “Rhino, you really are irredeemably vulgar.”
Rhino stared at her with blank incomprehension. “You must be thinking of some other fellow,” he said. “My shield has more quarterings than nine out of ten peers. Hasn’t been a commoner in the family in three centuries.”

Dunn’s dialog, as the above excerpts demonstrate, is spot on, sharp and witty and full of nuances. Her descriptions are alive, and her plot solid, although not very fast. Her research is deep and detailed, reflecting the spirit of the time and place she writes about – England after the WWI.
I got caught in the contemplations of one of the characters, a historian, who conducts his own research at Appsworth. Daisy listens to his tidbits of history of the estate and its former owners with enthusiastic interest:
“Perfect! I suppose they wrote reams of letters about it. And someone saved them all? Being a historian is going to get much more difficult, don’t you think, now that people send telegrams and ring each other up on the phone. No one saves telegrams.”
“That’s an interesting point, Mrs. Fletcher. When it comes to consideration of our times, future historians will have the newspapers, with everything they consider worthy of being printed, and I don’t suppose the bureaucracy will ever cease to produce rivers of paper. But social historians won’t have so much in the way of personal papers to delve into, I guess.”
“Still, most of those personal papers were always produced by a very small section of the population, weren’t they? So history’s been biased towards the rich and literate. Now most people are literate but most can’t afford phones and cables, so they write letters, so history will be biased towards them. Does that make sense?”

The above quotation feels like the author’s own musing on the topic of historical research. I wonder: what would future historians base their research of our times on? Nobody writes letters anymore; we’ve all switched to emails and Skype. Lots of publications are exclusively online as well. I don’t think the servers will survive another century. Does Carola Dunn ask herself the same question?

In my opinion, this novel of hers breaks the mold of pure mystery. Instead, it’s a tale of manners and class distinctions, of times and changes, with a healthy dose of humor, and except for some unnecessary info dumps in the beginning, it was an unmitigated pleasure to read.
I must also mention that since I started this series, I’ve learned one or two new words in almost every book. Below are the words I learned from this novel. Do you know them? Or am I the only one ignorant? In any case, I love it, when a novel sends me to a dictionary. I relish the new words as if they’re chocolates: rare and delicious.
Hoarfrost
Escutcheon
Loofah – this one my MS Word didn’t recognize either
Embonpoint
Hooray for Dunn and her extended vocabulary!