I haven’t read In the Crypt with a Candlestick, the prequel to Daisy Waugh’s new novel set in Tode Hall, so I felt as though I was joining a party halfway through – a party whose theme appears to be “Come as your favourite comic novelist”. There are dashes of PG Wodehouse, Jilly Cooper and, in its theme at least, the author’s grandfather Evelyn.
Tode Hall has been thrown into disarray by the arrival of a film company who are making a series that seems to be not a million miles away from Brideshead Revisited, which made Tode Hall famous in the first place.
There is a villainous producer who is unhappy that the grass isn’t green enough, a philandering director, stars with egos the size of the national debt, a winsome cast of eccentric aristocrats, a cynical crew and identical triplets who do a little drug dealing on the side.
The trouble starts when the keeper of the flame, Rapunzel Piece, the owner of the book copyright, takes offence at the way the film script has taken liberties, and threatens to withdraw her consent. She is later found, hanging like game in the larder. This really is a country house murder mystery – even the bodies have their own designated room.
Lots of shenanigans ensue: can they discover the murderer before the production has to be shut down, thereby ruining the financial prospects of all involved? This feels spot on – nothing, not even a global pandemic, can stop a production once the shooting has started.
The plot is suitably convoluted and I suppose if you have never watched Midsomer Murders you might be in some doubt about the outcome. The denouement is hardly revelatory or psychologically chilling, but I can’t imagine that is what the Tode Hall series are looking for. The body in the game larder is simply a device on which to hang frothy satire. Wodehouse has the Empress of Blandings, Jilly Cooper has “bonking” and Waugh has a few bloodstains to keep the story engine going.
But as an account of the pleasures and pains of film and TV production, Phone for the Fish Knives is pleasingly sharp. Waugh is good on the gap between the glamour that the outside world associates with filming and the monotonous, number-crunching reality. (Although the identical triplets with recreational drugs make the Tode Hall sound a great deal more enticing than any film set I have ever been on.)
This is a delightful soufflé of a book, puffed up and bursting with wit and attitude but lacking any solid underpinnings. Frankly that is a relief after reading so many thrillers which start with the mutilated corpses of young girls, and go downhill from there; or the psychological noir books in which women are gaslighted by horrible men. Phone For the Fish Knives may not be psychologically profound, but it is witty, well written and determinedly entertaining. In a year of gloom and dashed hopes, really who could ask for more?
This is the perfect book for the staycation, amusing enough to distract you from the driving rain or family you can’t get away from, but not so complicated that you can’t follow it after a couple of much needed gin and tonics. This book made me laugh out loud, and frankly that’s all I am looking for right now.
Daisy Goodwin is a writer and television producer
This article first appeared in the July 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe now.