THE ARSENIC LABYRINTH is the third of Martin Edwards's Lake District mysteries, but you don't need to have read the previous two books to enjoy this one. The main protagonists are again historian Daniel Kind who, with his media-darling girlfriend Miranda, have "downsized" to a life in the Lakes; and Detective Chief Inspector Hannah Scarlett, whose increasingly unsympathetic partner Marc owns a local bookshop-cafe. Daniel and Hannah are connected because Hannah worked with Daniel's father Ben (now deceased), but over the course of the series they have increasingly come to realise they have more in common – a theme that is continued in this volume.
Hannah, who runs the area's cold-case team, reluctantly begins to re-investigate the disappearance of a young woman, Emma Bestwick. A 10-year anniversary article in the local paper by an ambitious reporter with the nickname "Diva" is enough to make Lauren Self, Hannah's boss, insist that the case be re-opened in the interests of the politics of community and media relations. Hannah digs into the case with her customary thoroughness, interviewing Emma's few friends and family in search of any overlooked leads. No sooner have we met this set of witnesses, or suspects, than an anonymous phone call directs Hannah and her team to the old arsenic mines in the hills above Coniston water. A grim discovery is made, leading to a double mystery.
In THE ARSENIC LABYRINTH, as with the previous two Lakeland books, Martin Edwards adds a dimension by cleverly weaving a historical element into the plot. Daniel is researching the life of Ruskin, with the aim of writing a book if only he could come up with a fresh perspective. His search for new material gives him an excuse to contact Marc and hence to catch up on Hannah's news. Soon enough, Daniel is meeting some of Emma's old circle as part of his academic investigation, which brings him near to an explanation for part of the Coniston mystery.
Meanwhile, the main plot concerns Hannah and her colleagues' attempts to discover more about the people in Emma's life: her strangely detached sister and her oily, self-important husband; the couple with whom Emma stayed before she died who have more in common with the missing woman than they at first let on; and Alexandra, manager of the local myths and legends museum, who had been Emma's lover but who had sacked her from her job at the museum. We also encounter Alexandra's creepy father Alban Clough (whose family trees are nevertheless both key to the mysteries and helpful to the reader as a point of reference for the sometimes complicated historical relationships between the Clough and the Inchmore families). Alban is owner of the Museum of Myths and Legend, a fictional museum which becomes more central as the plot unfolds. Alban's museum is quaintly anachronistic, but even so perhaps less odd than real museums in Keswick – one dedicated to pencils and another to the "cars of the stars", a rather bizarre centre for a homage to the vehicles used by James Bond and his ilk.
THE ARSENIC LABYRINTH is a fast-moving book, lighter than the previous books in the series, which is partly due to the engaging yet unpleasant opportunist Guy (or "Robert L Stevenson" as he calls himself) and his gullible (or is she?) landlady, Sarah. The plot is both solid and satisfying: sharp without being cynical, funny without drifting into pastiche, and serious without being stodgy. Most readers will probably be surprised by the final twist, owing to some crafty red herrings. Martin Edwards has well and truly hit his stride in his Lake District novels; I'm looking forward to the next outing for Hannah and Daniel.