A South African safari ends in hundreds of digital photos of giraffes, hippos and natural wonders for a new widow who shocks herself by falling in love en route. Anna Farrell’s son and daughter send her on the trip to help heal her grief at the sudden death of her husband. A friend who was to accompany her has an accident and Anna goes alone—but not for long. Back home in England, Jonathan Farrell, separated from his wife and his two young sons, is contacted by a mysterious young woman who begs his help with a scandal but then refuses to tell him what it is. Jonathan is a sort-of-working freelance journalist who nonetheless manages to support a household and his lifestyle easily between gigs. He worries about finding work but lack of income never trims his sails. I wonder if this magical freelance existence is a recurring theme with Fraser?
In any case, the mystery contact keeps calling and then turning into a no-show, Jonathan enlists a friend—another freelance journalist who has plenty of work–to help him explore the elusive caller’s hints; Jonathan’s mom is wined and dined in style on safari; and Jonathan’s sister Sophie tries to sort out her troubled friends, adolescent kids and other domestic complications. Anna’s new beau is connected to the mystery caller and to a glamorous former model who is still tabloid fare and who can’t keep a confidence. Jonathan finds out what the terrible secret is and discovers something even more horrible and deadly that puts him in danger. Friends fall in and out of favor and the family obsesses over what to say to each other and when to say it.
Shifting Sands has a more believable plot resolution than Unfinished Portrait, the Fraser mystery with Rona Parish as the sleuth. But the stakes never feel high enough, the danger never gets tense enough, the misleading clues are finally disappointing and harsh reality is never very messy or inconvenient. After two books, my impression is that Fraser writes light, comfortable mysteries that provide an afternoon’s entertaining read but won’t keep you up late at night or unsettle your mind with pictures or threats too vivid to let you fall asleep. Predictable, quasi-modern cozies for those times when life is challenging enough and an undemanding genre book is the perfect respite.
Shifting Sands Anthea Fraser | Severn House 2011