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A Super New Thriller from Raicho Raichev
on July 16, 2007
If, like Catherine Morland you realize that in England, one could rely on "the laws of the land, and the manners of the age. Murder was not tolerated...and neither poison nor sleeping potions to be procured like rhubarb, from every druggist," [Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, Volume II, Chapter IX., Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1971 edition, p 161], you will be in for shock when you read the glorious country house crime novels of Raicho Raichev.
The minute you delve into Raichev's latest, THE DEATH OF CORINNE, you are thrilled by contrast: bizarre crimes and criminals set in the reassuring world of English landed society. With the entrance of visitors from the Continent, will the gentle shades of English verdure run to red?
Raichev's second novel in the Antonia and Hugh Payne Country House mysteries has the pedigree of the English thriller greats. The settings are handsomely drawn and the leading lady's understated manners do not conceal her exquisite intelligence. Antonia Darcy Payne is the mystery within the mystery.
We encounter Hugh and Antonia Payne at the tail end of their honeymoon. This they are spending at Chalfont Park, the home of Hugh's Aunt, Lady Grylls. The serene and romantic mood is altered by the announcement of the arrival of Lady Grylls's god-daughter, the fabled, wealthy and French chanteuse, Corinne Coreille. Will Corinne bring a retinue, her own hair dresser, a private jet...
...or death threats. "Somebody wants to kill her?" asks Antonia? And wouldn't you know it, Corinne is seeking a safe haven from anonymous letters threatening her life. With a croquet lawn that's "terribly overgrown,"  what better place to go to earth than shabby-chic Chalfont Park? However, given the nature of the other characters who live and murder on Raichev's pages, Corinne may have have chosen the wrong spot.
Could Corinne be bringing trouble with her? Here's a clue: As Hugh and Antonia ask Lady Grylls about Corinne, two photographs of the singer on the Chalfont's drawing room mantle  become central to byzantine plot.
And, here's another: There's an extraordinary scene in the dining car of a train speeding from Paris to London that is ten pages of past events told us through the stream of consciousness of a uniquely troubled character. This chapter is quite a little masterpiece all by itself. Possessed by vocal inner demons, the character presents as a stone around which the river of everyday life seems to flow. "Sticky...it's so hard to keep the line between past and present,"  says the character. But that is what Raichev does so well.
While most of the people in Antonia's life get on with things and barely think twice about motives, Antonia is a deliciously reflective lady of the still-waters-run-deep variety. "Self-consciousness," said "Young" Jolyon Forsyte "is a handicap, you know...." [ John Galsworthy, The Forsyte Saga, Book II, In Chancery, Part I, Chapter VII, "The Colt and the Filly," New York: Scribner,  1998, p 395] Antonia Payne is the exception who proves the rule.
And regarding those who lack self-consciousness, "Young" Jolyon Forsyte said, "Never to see yourself as others see you, it's a wonderful preservative...." Which explains the substantial and enduring charm of Hugh Payne's "Aunt Nellie," relic of the late Lord Grylls and current chatelaine of Chalfont Park, the scene of much of the novel. Ravaged by time and socialism, the estate has been in the care of old retainers and her cigarette-stained hands for some ten years. Never fear, she's bearing up.
The passage of time has not dimmed Lady Grylls's ability to recall past incidents which do much more than delight. Raichev's drawing room touch is perfect as he peppers the pages with allusions to a marriage in Paris of "lethal gamblers" in the 1940s, a Kenya safari gone wrong in 1960, and a concert at the Royal Albert Hall in 1969.
Be prepared to be tossed between that which seems normal and that which is sinister. Wonderfully complex and compelling, the book's only problem is that it has a last page.