November 2021

Autumn has arrived. As the daylight hours give way to long evenings arriving earlier each day, we readers gain more time to curl up with a good cozy and a cup of hot cider. This month’s choice is a story filled with characters created for just such a scene.

First, I’ll describe the backstory of this cozy, which is the 23rd volume in the series. Aunt Dimity is dead, but is an unscary, wise guidance-dispensing, non-ghostly entity. We meet her through her human contact, Lori Willis. Lori, her husband Bill, their 3 children, and Bill Sr. (Lori’s father-in-law) are all Americans who have relocated to England to live in what was Dimity’s home on earth, a lovely cottage in the Cotswold village of Finch.

The connection between the English spinster and an American mother came about during WWII when Lori’s mother was stationed in England. She and Dimity became very close, and after the war, the women kept up a lifelong correspondence. Dimity became an honorary aunt to Lori.

When the women died, Lori found that, for lack of anyone else to whom to leave her assets, Dimity willed them to Lori, including the cottage. Over the years, as Lori married and her husband decided he could move his lucrative law practice outside the U.S., they relocated to England, started their family, and became fixtures in the village of Finch.

Like any small village, but especially a small ENGLISH village, Finch and its citizens provided much of the humor. Its grapevine would make the internet redundant. There was bad behavior and hijinks at times, but many more instances of kindness and positive events. One might expect such a life to be boring, but in truth there was seldom a dull moment.

Next there’s the question of how Lori and Dimity communicated, considering one was dead and one was not. Atherton had a creative idea for that—one I’ve never seen or heard of anywhere else. When she was alone, Lori opened a special blue notebook, she spoke, and Dimity responded in writing. At the end of the session, her lovely copperplate script disappeared from the notebook.

The topics they discussed in their communications covered everything from family matters, to the specific issue around which each book revolved, to the history and background of England, Finch, its people, to just plain old good advice (e.g., don’t rush into anything). No one, including Lori and Dimity, knew just how they’re able to do this or why. It really doesn’t matter; it’s just for readers to accept.

Back to The King’s Ransom.

As much as Lori loved her life and family, she was approaching burnout. She told her husband:

“My life is perfect…I have a family who loves me and whom I adore. I live in a beautiful place among wonderful people. I’m valued at home and in my community, and my best friend lives five minutes away. I have no reason—and certainly no right—to complain about anything.” [p. 4]

Yet she felt like “a prisoner.” Bill, always sensitive to his wife and appreciative of all she did, suggested a change of scenery in the form of a long weekend away for just the two of them. He had a client meeting not far from Rye, and they made plans and reservations at The Mermaid Inn there–a town and hotel where Lori had long wanted to go.

We know what “they” say about the best laid plans, etc. It was October in East Sussex, and they neglected to check the forecast. As it happened, it didn’t just rain. They arrived in the area just as an “extratropical cyclone” started to hit.

Lori dropped off Bill at his client’s home to take care of their business, then continued the short distance to Rye and the hotel, with Bill planning to meet her there later. Lori didn’t make it to Rye. The horrific storm forced her to stop at the first place she could stop driving and seek shelter.

That happened to be at Shepney, a small town only a few miles from Rye. So near, yet so far…the flooded roads prevented both Lori proceeding to Rye, and Bill from meeting her as planned at either Rye or Shepney. She was on her own for an unknown period of time.

Lori sheltered in an old church in Shepney while she thought about what she should do while staying dry. She was surprised by another visitor: retired Bishop Christopher Wyndham. He proved to be an invaluable source of help and advice for her then and over the next few days. He suggested she stay at The King’s Ransom, the main hotel in town, where he was also staying and well known.

So many were seeking shelter at the hotel that the only bed remaining for Lori was in the cluttered attic. At least she had shelter, food, and people she could trust to help her, which was good because that’s when the fun started: creaking doors and footsteps at night, sketchy people seen doing questionable things, rumors of ghosts.

There were also the stories about the Inn’s dubious history and connection to smuggling in prior centuries. Were these phenomena what they seemed to be, or something else entirely? Was the hotel haunted? Was smuggling still occurring?

Meanwhile, Lori marveled at how the Shepney community pulled together to deal with the flooding disaster. Not only did each person have a role in taking care of others; they also had plans for caring for the animals of farmers nearby. Even the cows were milked on time. It was obvious that careful planning for these events was in place to be activated when necessary. It was inspirational to see how people cooperated and cared for people and animals in the community.

As I mentioned, this is book #23 in the Aunt Dimity cozy series by Atherton. I have not read them all, but I did read the first few and have read random others in the series over the years. Each one contains a bit of history, a lesson or two, and always a good story by an expert author of the cozy mystery. Atherton always has a point to make in a gentle way. If you read one book and like it, there are plenty more to keep readers happy.

What I especially liked about this book was a good dose of the history of East Sussex. I also liked the characters and the illustration of how a community can come together in an emergency to care for each member, whether human or animal, as well as lessons on how to treat people. Of course, I always like Aunt Dimity’s wise words and care for others. I would recommend the series to all readers who love cozies.

This book will be available at Grover Beach Community Library, along with 2 earlier ones in the series.

–Donna Rueff–