"Annette Berowne had a sweet, heart-shaped face. She had honey-blond hair and wide brown eyes. She was not beautiful, and certainly not glamorous, but only Phillip Bethancourt noticed that."
So begins Cassandra Chan's debut novel, The Young Widow (2005), in her debut mystery series of Phillip Bethancourt and Jack Gibbons mysteries. But before discussing Annette Berowne, it is important to know about Gibbons and Bethancourt.
Bethancourt and Gibbons could not be more different. Everything comes easily to Phillip Bethancourt, a young and wealthy Englishman with a model girlfriend and posh apartment to match his high standard of living. Jack Gibbons, on the other hand, is more of an everyman--an ambitious detective sergeant at Scotland Yard, Gibbons has his eye on more important things than parties and women: he's watching for a career-making case. Despite their differences the two men strike an easy friendship, largely because of Bethancourt's interest in all things criminal and his knack for helping Gibbons with his more, shall we say, complex cases.
Annette Berowne, meanwhile, is the not beautiful nor glamorous widow of the murder victim in Gibbons' latest case. From the start, Annette Berowne seems like the obvious suspect, a young woman married to a man who could be her father usually is. Especially when that woman has been married to two other older men. Men who also died under unique circumstances.
However, as Jack and Phillip soon realize, Annette is not the only one who would benefit from Berowne's death. In fact, the small town near the family estate is ripe with suspects, as is the family itself. Still, the investigation seems to perpetually turn back to the enchanting Annette Berowne. No matter how desperately Gibbons tries to find a more likely suspect.
As Bethancourt observes his friend's, indeed everyone's, growing infatuation with the young widow his initial detachment becomes worry as Bethancourt begins to wonder if his friend could be walking down a path that will shatter his ambitious career before it's really begun.
The Young Widow is what I would call a quiet book. Chan's prose is witty and sharp, but it is also subtle. The book is rich with humor, but it is the restrained kind so usually associated with the English. The writing here cannot be devoured, rather it has to relished--readers have to linger. Both myself and my mother found the characters and the plot to be thoroughly enjoyable even with slight confusion at the beginning due to an influx of many characters' names over a short number of pages.
One of the particular strong suits of the writing here is Chan's use of dialogue where she mixes humor, plot, and character interaction in perfect combination. One of my favorite excerpts will hopefully illustrate that point with a conversation between Bethancourt and his young nephew:
"'I've got to dress,' said Bethancourt, stubbing out his cigarette. 'Then we'll go for a drive in the country.'
'I just came in from the country,' said Denis.
'I can't help that,' answered Bethancourt. 'Anyway, this will be different country and you can ride in the back with Cerberus.'
He fled to his bedroom."
Although the story centers on the murder investigation, Chan's characters are fully-realized in her crystal clear representations of Gibbons and Bethancourt who seem ready to walk right off the page and into real life. This novel falls into the mystery genre without being formulaic (although I did guess the murderer, but since that rarely happens it was more enjoyable than annoying). Chan gives equal time to plot and characters to create not only a wonderful first book but strong footing for a series that already has three books to its credit.
You can read more about Gibbon's and Bethancourt's investigations in Village Affairs (2006) and Trick of the Mind (2008).