This is the third and newest book in Sally Wright’s well-received “Ben Reese Mystery Series.” The first two—Pride and Predator and Publish and Perish—drew rave reviews from the Washington Times, National Review, Publishers Weekly, and the redoubtable Ralph McInerny.

The new book’s premise is intriguing. It’s 1961. Elderly Scottish professor Georgina Fletcher leaves an Oxford pub with a tall, argumentative American. He puts something into her purse and stomps off. She reads it, goes back to her room, and writes a letter that she asks a friend to mail secretly should she, Georgina, die. The letter requests a private investigation into her death. The next day, Georgina dies at breakfast.

The letter is addressed to a young American, Ellen Winter, who takes it seriously. Ellen has the double good luck of being Georgina’s heir and an apprentice to Dr. Ben Reese, the quiet, handsome, manly (I’m thinking Rod Taylor in Hotel), widowed archivist at Alderton University in Ohio. Reese, an amateur detective, just happens to be in Scotland. Ellen contacts him, and the two set about fulfilling Georgina’s request.

Wright is thorough in her research and clearly familiar with Scotland. (The second book in this series is set there, too.) As Ben and Ellen engineer conversations with a large group of suspects, we learn a great deal about Scottish landscape, history, food, and culture, as well as the Scottish impression of Americans in 1961. Descriptions of Georgina’s centuries-old estate and other locales are clear and enticing. Just for fun, Wright enlightens us on the subjects of falconry, tire manufacturing, microbiology, book collecting, and furniture restoration, as well as Samuel Johnson and New World explorers. Wright is sure-handed with her details and seems to know her stuff. So here we are, with an interesting murder, a romantic setting, lots of authentic local color, and a brainy, chivalrous hunk of a sleuth. This book should have been first-rate, but two problems keep it from being so.

One disappointment was that, in spite of a cast of angry characters and a lot of romantic set-ups, there is no flesh-and-blood passion here. I’m not talking about sex, necessarily; I’m talking about intimacy. Both the murder and the book are cerebral, detached, and cool. Now, Multnomah publishes what it calls “Christian living books” in numerous genres, and several reviewers on the Internet have referred to Pursuit and Persuasion as a “Christian novel.” I’m not sure what that means, but if Wright was trying to write a “Christian novel”—and I haven’t read that she was—it might explain the characters never transcending their own good manners.

And, okay, let’s talk about sex for a minute. At least three women are interested in our hero, and he’s interested in at least one of them, but no one ever lets on. In 354 pages, there’s not one kiss, one sleepless night of longing, one inadvertent touch, or even an interesting double-entendre. The Washington Times compared Wright to Dorothy L. Sayers, but she isn’t quite there yet. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey, the politest and most Christian of sleuths, is also unabashed in his courtship of Harriet Vane. More than once, we glimpse a joyous, holy sexuality that the foppish Wimsey keeps on a very short leash. And with that glimpse, we anticipate that something grand is in store for us. Wimsey’s controlled but evident sexuality makes him even more Christian, more manly, and more interesting. When Wright can do that with Ben Reese, she’ll be off the porch and running with the big dogs.

A bigger problem with this book, however, is the lack of authoritative editing. Wright has high intelligence and a literate imagination, but she needs an editor to help her heed Faulkner’s advice to writers; “Kill your precious darlings”; excise what doesn’t belong, even if it’s brilliant. (Especially if it’s brilliant.) A more liberal use of the red pencil would have easily eliminated most of the obstacles to my loving this book. To wit: There is way too much painstakingly researched trivia. Many of the conversations are repetitive. There are too many suspects, too many characters, too many charming locales, and too many pages of Georgina’s “poetry.” Wright persists in using a distracting orthography to represent Scottish speech. And I don’t know what the book’s title means.

But enough grumbling. These flaws are irritating because the rest of the book deserves better. I liked it enough to order the first two novels the other day, and I think Sally Wright’s just going to get better.


[Pursuit and Persuasion, by Sally S. Wright (Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah Publishers) 354 pp., $10.99]