In my TBR report for January, I mentioned getting sucked in to Kobo’s subscription service. One of the ways that happened was through Murder Most Actual by Alexis Hall. The book is currently being offered as a Kobo exclusive and since I’ve very much enjoyed what I’ve read of Hall’s work to date, I couldn’t resist.
Murder Most Actual is, unsurprisingly, a murder mystery. Liza and Hanna’s marriage is going through a rough spot, so Hanna books the couple in for a weekend at a secluded castle-turned-hotel in the Scottish Highlands. The lack of internet and mobile phone reception seems ideal for giving Liza some distance from her work as a popular true crime podcaster… until they get snowed in. And the bodies start to drop. Literally: the first victim is a guest that falls from the castle tower.
Of the books by Alexis Hall I’ve read so far, Murder Most Actual reminded me most of The Affair of the Mysterious Letter. Both are books in which the author is messing about with genre in a fun way that is at times rather meta (though I note he does a bit of this in Boyfriend Material as well). In Murder Most Actual this takes the form of bringing together both murder mystery and true crime, then looking at the gaps between them, and bringing some critiques of those genres.
The murder mystery elements come out most strongly in the characterisation. Fans of Cluedo will immediately pick up on the colour-coding of the other guests: the reverend wearing a green sweater, the colonel in the mustard tie. Not only was this an entertaining nod to a landmark work of the genre, it also helps immensely to keep track of the large cast of characters. There are also nods to other giants in the field; Agatha Christie’s mark can be seen on the short inspector with the dubious foreign accent who is hot on the trail of a criminal mastermind. These characters are ridiculously stereotypical in a fun way that helps to point out how over-the-top murder mysteries can be.
Although the secondary characters are not exactly well-rounded, Liza and Hanna certainly are. The author used this technique previously in Boyfriend Material and it works here to good effect. Their relationship has nuance; both of them love each other a great deal and want to make things work, but have grown apart over time and have coping mechanisms that make things worse. Insecurities come up and although they are dealt with in the course of the story, it is acknowledged that they will more than likely come up again.
One of the key conflicts that comes up between them is that Hanna just doesn’t get Liza’s interest in true crime. This is one of the ways in which the genre gets critiqued. Hanna has reservations about the ethics of the genre and while she agrees that Liza behaves ethically for the most part, there are times when Liza crosses the line by asking inappropriate questions and harassing other guests — who, Hanna is at pains to point out, are people. It also sends Liza running off into danger when the most prudent choice would be to head in the opposite direction. Nevertheless, I found Liza’s obsession with solving the puzzle she’s presented with to be relatable.
Murder Most Actual is definitely not the most subtle of the author’s work, with a tendency to lampshade his points. It also felt overly long, with the middle dragging. Given the number of characters, a novella form might have done it a disservice and cutting the number of characters reduces the pool of suspects. Still, I could feel my attention wandering at times.
But on the whole, it was a fun book and an entertaining read.
Published: November 2021 by Kobo Originals
Format reviewed: E-book (epub), 302 pages