Sinister Dexter (PorterGirl 3) by Lucy Brazier

Tea-bag crisis strikes Old College!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Things have got very dark indeed in Old College since we last visited. The new Bursar, Professor Dexter Sinistrov, whom we last met while he was engaged in nefarious goings-on in the neighbouring college, has now settled into his role. His first priority has been to cut the catering budget, leading to a serious shortage of biscuits in the Porters Lodge – and they’re down to their last three tea-bags! This tragedy, along with the small matter of two corpses being found at the bottom of the garden, means our beloved Deputy Head Porter has her hands full. Especially since The Dean seems to think the best way to solve the crime would be for him to dress up as Zorro, Head Porter is busily leading a double life online, and Porter is becoming ever more romantically involved with the local police sergeant. Mind you, Deputy Head Porter herself doesn’t seem totally immune to the charms of DCI Thompson…

….“Oh, you’re a porter, are you?” Professor Palmer seats himself and leans over, perilously close to my breakfast. I place a defensive forearm around the plate. “You’re rather pretty to be carrying bags, don’t you think?”
….It takes every ounce of temperance to refrain from stabbing him in the face with my fork. Had it not already got bacon on it, I’m afraid this would have very likely been the outcome.
….“Porters,” I emphasise the upper-case P through gritted teeth, “are not the carriers of bags, but the keepers of keys.”

I shall start with my usual disclaimer – I’ve been blog buddies with Lucy for years now, so you may have to assume that I’m biased…

This series has been loads of fun since the beginning, when it started out as a serialisation on Lucy’s blog. The first book, First Lady of the Keys, (previously titled Secret Diary of PorterGirl), was taken directly from the blog and occasionally showed its origins by being a bit loose in structure perhaps, especially in the early chapters. But the second book, The Vanishing Lord, and this one are both much tighter and better plotted. There is a running story arc in the background so the books are very definitely meant to be read in order. In fact, the opening of this one contains lots of spoilers for the earlier books.

With this third book, I feel Lucy has really taken a step up in terms of plotting, giving this one a distinct story of its own as well as progressing the background story. A young student and his boyfriend are found dead in each others arms in the College gardens, with no visible signs of how they died. DCI Thomson and his team carry out the official investigation, while The Dean and his team carry out an unofficial one. In the background, the usual machinations of the Fellowship of Old College continue, with suggestions that the Vicious Circle, a secret society within the College who mete out their own form of vengeance against anyone who they feel endangers college tradition, might be back in operation. The mysterious and menacing Professor Sinistrov is acting suspiciously, but is he part of the Vicious Circle? Or, as The Dean suspects, a Russian spy? Or does he have a secret agenda of his own? Or is he simply anti-biscuit? No-one can be sure, but if Deputy Head Porter doesn’t get a decent cup of tea soon, there’ll be ructions…

….“I think it’s fair to say that we are of the opinion that Maurinio and his rugged companion were engaged in a personal relationship?”
….The Dean’s approach to the subject matter is amusing. Which is why what he says next is all the more surprising.
….“I would have made an excellent homosexual, Deputy Head Porter” he continues, wistfully. “I’ve always had above average good looks and an unusually superior sense of style.”
….“Yes” I say, tentatively. “I think there is somewhat more to it than that, Sir.” But he isn’t listening. He has found a crusted stain on the hem of his jumper and is scratching at it furiously.

Lucy Brazier

The story is only part of the fun of these books though. Mostly it’s about the quirky bunch of characters Lucy has created and the strange and esoteric life of this ancient institution based, not altogether exaggeratedly, on one of our real much-revered universities. The Dean continues to be at the centre of most of the daily mayhem, while Head Porter’s character is gradually deepening as we learn more about his life outside the college. While totally loyal to the College and her colleagues, Deputy Head Porter observes them with an objective and humorous eye, and continues to try to get everyone to behave a little more sensibly – a hopeless task, I fear! As always, there are some set-piece comedy scenes – I’m proud to claim a tiny bit of credit for being part of the crowd of blog followers who forced Lucy to take her characters off to an open-mic night disguised as a struggling rock band!

Great fun! I’m even willing to overlook the fact that it’s written in my pet hate present tense. If you haven’t visited Old College yet, I heartily recommend you do so the very next time you need cheering up. But remember to read them in order! And Lucy, I hope you’re hard at work on the next one…

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The Vanishing Lord (PorterGirl 2) by Lucy Brazier

Missing paintings and medieval rumpy-pumpy…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

In this second book, PorterGirl has settled in now at Old College and begun to understand some of the weird traditions. So when the famous portrait of the college’s founder Lord Layton disappears, she knows not to call the police – the college keeps its problems to itself. Unfortunately the police aren’t quite so au fait with the college’s rules, so when word leaks out, they come snooping around and soon begin to suspect that the wall of silence they’re being met with from the Dean and porters suggests they must know more about the alleged theft than they’re letting on. Meantime a mysterious man is spotted around the college – who is he? And why does Deputy Head Porter keep getting the feeling she’s being followed? And did the Master of neighbouring Hawkins College die a natural death or is he one in the long line of mysterious murders that afflict these ancient institutions? And, most importantly, can Deputy Head Porter manage to filch a few more giant cookies from Head of Catering?? A girl has to keep her strength up after all…

The PorterGirl stories originated as a blog in which Lucy fictionalised her real life experiences as the first female Deputy Head Porter at one of our most ancient colleges. One hopes she exaggerates quite a bit! Lucy is a long-time blog buddy of mine, so you will have to assume that I’m biased.

Having said that, I thoroughly enjoyed this second outing and felt it was a significant step up in terms of structure and writing from the first. Knowing Lucy, I’m aware that following the initial issue of the first book she was signed up by a publisher and, as a result, this book has had a professional edit. One of my criticisms of The First Lady of the Keys (originally published as Secret Diary of PorterGirl) was that sometimes the bloggy nature of its origin showed through, with the early chapters reading more like rather loosely related journal entries before she got properly into her stride later in the book. This slight problem has been eliminated in the new book, so that it flows much better, with the humorous digressions arising out of the plot rather than impeding it.

This is not to suggest it has become sensible – I’d never accuse Lucy of that! The characters are just as quirky, the plot proudly struts far over the credibility line, the vocabulary is as grandiloquent as ever, and the humour takes priority.

Deputy Head Porter

The main characters are developed a bit more in this outing. Porter gets a bit of a love interest while Head Porter is behaving very mysteriously, leading to all kinds of suspicions as to what he might be up to. The Dean continues to cause mayhem wherever he goes, and seems to look to Deputy Head Porter to provide him with with a constant supply of mysteries for them to investigate – which in Old College isn’t too tricky since barely a day goes by without some poor academic keeling over under unexplained circumstances. There are some great humorous set pieces, like the drunken night in the Dean’s office – or, to be more specific, the resulting hangover the following day. Or the occasion when the Dean thinks it might be a good idea for them all to don fancy dress and invade the neighbouring college…

To add to the fun, Deputy Head Porter stumbles across an ancient diary kept by one of her earliest predecessors and we are treated to occasional extracts. The diary explains the origins of some of the traditions which have baffled Deputy Head Porter, but also tells us a good deal about the diarist’s complicated love-life, all in deliciously mock medieval language. We also find out a bit about the original Lord Layton, the man behind the portrait – a man who makes the Borgias seem quite cuddly.

Fie! Today hast been a wonder, I tellst thee. The wants of these educated gentlefolk taketh it out of a man. The Order of the Lesser Dragon hast invited other learned muggins to the College to work as tutors and run matters. They are naming themselves ‘The Fellowship’ and now I wonder about what the mynster said ere about them having the occult ways because since they arrived the morrow there hast been strange and terrible ceremonials in the chapel and they weren’t no ways of God I can tell thee that as I know well the ways of God, which can also be strange and terrible, but leastways there is the promyse of Heaven at the end of it and all you get at the end of College days is a fancye parchment with your name on it.

If I was being hypercritical (which, as you know, I am!) I’d mention that, just occasionally, the high-flown language which is a trademark of the books leads to words being used when they don’t quite mean what they’re being used to mean, which makes this pedant twitchy. And, viewing it as a standalone, I’d suggest the ending is perhaps a little anti-climactic. However in many respects this is a serial rather than a series, so there are plenty of hanging threads ready to be picked up and woven into the next volume.

All-in-all, a most enjoyable romp – the kind of book that brightens up a dull day. I hope Lucy is working hard on the next episode!

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PS My apologies for suddenly disappearing and not responding to comments etc for the last few days. I had a mini domestic trauma, involving cat fight, emergency vet, stitches, etc – all’s well though. Tuppence is almost fully recovered, and my wounds should heal soon too – she really doesn’t like being put in a catbox!

And now I’m disappearing again…gotta support my boys…

See y’all in a couple of weeks! 😀

Secret Diary of PorterGirl by Lucy Brazier

secret diary of portergirlMurder and mayhem at Old College…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When PorterGirl becomes the first female in 600 years to work as a porter in Old College, she’s expecting to face her share of old-fashioned prejudice and to have to learn all the quirky traditions of this venerable institution. But she soon finds there are dark secrets in the College’s history – secrets that even today some members of the Fellowship of the College are desperate to keep hidden. And, having an inquisitive nature and a background as a police officer, PorterGirl soon finds herself deeply embroiled in the shady goings-on that… er… go on behind these hallowed walls. As danger begins to dog her footsteps, it’s just as well there’s no shortage of tea and sausage sandwiches to keep her spirits up!

The Secret Diary of PorterGirl began life as a blog, and frequent visitors here will doubtless recognise PorterGirl as one of my delightfully witty regular commenters. I’ve been a follower and fan of Lucy’s blog for a long time now and was delighted to hear that she had compiled her blog stories into book form. Obviously, since we’re blog buddies and friends, you will have to assume some bias in this review, but I will try to be as honest as I can.

Lucy began her blog when, in real life, she left her job as a police officer and went to work at a college in one of our oldest and most prestigious Universities in the role of Deputy Head Porter. As with any ancient institution, the real ‘Old College’ is awash with traditions, some of them inspiring and others that seem a little more, shall we say, esoteric. Having always written for her own pleasure, Lucy began to blog about her experiences and, as the blog gained a following, gradually started to embellish the already strange truth of college life with some even stranger storylines of her own invention. The book is a compilation of the blog entries, though Lucy has made some changes to pull it together into a more structured form.

Maybe Old College looks something like this...
Maybe Old College looks something like this…

In the early chapters, the bloggy origins of the book show through as PorterGirl tells us about her first days in the new job, and introduces us to some of the characters who grow and develop as the book progresses. PorterGirl is one of life’s sunny enthusiasts with a keen observational eye for the humour in any situation and some of the set pieces are a delight. The inaugural meeting of the Committee for the Prevention of Drunken Behaviour, for example, held unfortunately on a day when PorterGirl is herself somewhat hungover, is comic joy as she listens with growing apprehension to the Fellowship’s plans for dealing with drunken students by having porters put them into the recovery position and attempt to ensure they remain conscious…

“What if the drunkard is a girl?” the Dean continues. “We can’t have our Porters wrestling drunk young ladies to the floor and forcing them to lie on their sides. Think of our reputation!”…

“I think” I say as politely as I can “that if the person is upright and able to physically fend us off they are not in need of urgent medical attention… I feel trying to force them onto the ground, male or female, will only inflame the situation.”

“That is one way of looking at it,” says Senior Tutor. “But I think it should be thought about. It would be easier to prod them repeatedly from the recovery position.”

As the plot begins to thicken, it takes on the tone of a somewhat spoofed Dan Brown story (though some might say Dan Brown’s books read like spoofs of Dan Brown books!), full of secret societies, mysterious symbols and ancient traditions. What stops it from becoming too much is the character of PorterGirl herself – level-headed and competent, she steers a path of relative sanity through the maze of strange happenings and odd behaviour of her increasingly caricatured characters. The humour stays strong throughout and as PorterGirl begins to develop affection for her colleagues, so does the reader. But there are also some quite touching scenes, such as PorterGirl’s burgeoning friendship with the elderly Professor K, and some well-written action scenes towards the end as PorterGirl gets close to the truth and begins to run into danger. These changes of tone add depth and contrast to the overall effect.

Lucy Brazier - with Deputy Head Porter's trademark bowler hat and wine!
Lucy Brazier – with Deputy Head Porter’s trademark bowler hat and wine!

Biased I may be, but I think this is a great début. The structure is a little unbalanced with the change from journal type early chapters on the role of the Deputy Head Porter to a full on mystery adventure in the second half, but this is due to the way the book originated and doesn’t detract from the overall enjoyment. Now that Lucy has established her characters and the world of Old College the possibilities are endless, and I look forward to seeing how her style develops in the future. Something to read when the world feels grey and a little laughter is required to brighten the day!

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