Overall Trilogy Rating: 4.5 stars
Finding a dead body in the hedgerows was, to say the least, an inauspicious way for Valor, the disowned second son of an earl, and Bishan, a first generation Anglo-Indian with autism, to begin their day. Worse yet, the deceased was a former classmate of theirs from Harrow, a boarding school in London. The police arrest Bishan when they find hard evidence they believe links Bishan to the dead man. Valor knows there is absolutely zero possibility that his gentle lover committed murder, but he alone is not alibi enough for the cops. Armed with a wealth of tactics gleaned from years of Poirot fandom, Valor calls on his “old boys club” of Harrow alum to set the record straight.
Valor’s best efforts end up for naught when the police suddenly discover irrefutable proof Bishan is not the murderer: another body, murdered according to the same MO as the first and while Bishan was in police custody. The real murder is targeting people from Bishan and Valor’s circle of friends and acquaintances at Harrow and always leaves a calling card in the form of old school programs. As the bodies start to pile up, the two lovers feel danger coming ever closer. Yet when the murderer makes an attempt directly on Valor and Bishan, the two refuse to give into the fear or to go into hiding. Nearly everyone in their “old boy” group is suspect…until they end up dead. But with very few clues and very much danger, Valor and Bishan will be lucky to survive.
Despite my synopsis focusing on the ominous threats of an unknown murderer, that does not capture the charm of the book. If you enjoy a murder mystery, this trilogy is sure to satisfy. That said, the relationship we eventually see between Valor and Bishan was arguably just as big of a draw for me. Thanks to Valor and Bishan’s romance, this murder mystery has rather a lot of charm, too. I think the setting—a small village named Grasmere in the English countryside—and the characters—two established lovers who show on-page just how well they fit each other—both soften and heighten the drama surrounding the multiple murders. Donovan portrays the setting as a quaint little town with nosy, curmudgeonly neighbors, but also family friends who would drop everything to help someone in need. Valor and Bishan run a little bakery in town, which adds to their charm. Their relationship on page is stunning. Though I cannot comment about the realness of the portrayal of autism, it’s clear Donovan has created Bishan as a character who approaches the world differently than people without autism. Valor’s acceptance of these differences and moral support for Bishan in all situations was endearing. By way of example, Bishan isn’t necessarily always wanting physical contact even after traumatic experiences. Valor’s approach is to offer his hand to Bishan, letting Bishan decide if he wants physical contact. When Bishan is overwhelmed by disruptions to his routine (being arrested and staying in jail, or when the couple narrowly survives a car crash), Valor knows Bishan needs time alone to recompose his thoughts and gives him the time and space to do so—even if it means kicking well-meaning family and friends out of their home.
Donovan’s approach to the murder aspect of the story was both compelling and, I’ll admit, a bit annoying. First, I appreciated that all three books in the trilogy revolve around a single murderer. I felt this gave me plenty of time to mull over the multiple characters in the supporting cast with a critical eye—always wondering if our dynamic duo was being targeted by someone they considered a near and dear friend. Second, the people who end up murdered kept me guessing as to who truly was responsible. For the record, Valor has been disowned by his family for being gay. The drama between Valor and his family is not insignificant and provided plenty of suspects for murder…so when his family members start dropping like flies, too, I had to reevaluate my ideas of who was behind it all.
There was only one story element that was a big turn off for me and it centers on how Donovan “balanced” the two MCs in book 1. Right off the bat, our MCs find a dead body and call the police. We get a snippet of their life together, a basic introduction to them as people, then Bishan gets arrested and sent to prison where he spends the bulk of the entire book. What rubbed me the wrong way was that this one character who I felt represented qualities often passed over in character design (POC, autistic) is the same character to got the least on-page time. If you are as sensitive to this as I am, I would urge you to motor through to books 2 and 3 because the focus and balance between Valor and Bishan improves greatly.
Finally, I feel compelled to mention that the Grasmere Triology feels less like three independent titles that string together one larger story arc and more like one story that’s been haphazardly cut up into three chunks. Yes, Valor narrates book 1 (he has to, Bishan spends virtually all of that book in jail and is given only a few token appearances) and Bishan takes up narration for book 2, but all the drama in all three books is driven by the same murderer. Book 1, for example, lacks all closure. If I hadn’t known in advance I had books 2 and 3, I likely would have given up on the series because I was so displeased with the lack of Bishan in book 1 and the complete non-progress on identifying anything about the murderer. Suffice to say, despite the shortcomings of book 1, all three books together as one unit make for a pretty satisfying read.
If you are looking for a super cozy murder mystery that doesn’t skimp on the murder or high drama (car crashes, homophobic relatives, police stings, explosions, kidnappings, death-by-cinnamon) then I’m sure you’ll love this book.