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The rich, they are different

Cover of The Other Half
A review of The Other Half by Charlotte Vassell

There has to be something very satisfying about killing off a rich person. The mystery genre’s very foundations rests on the corpses of the well-to-do; that any hereditary titles survived the Golden Age is astonishing. Those plump inheritances, the isolated country houses and silently judgmental domestic staff, often coupled with a victim and cadre of suspects that usually don’t generate too much sympathy (they did have a pretty comfy existence before the fatally poisoned claret, after all)—the mystery basically writes itself. And for almost as long as there’s been murders depicted among the aristos, there’s been satires of murders among the aristos. Charlotte Vassell’s debut The Other Half is among the latest to join the ranks of satirical mysteries, although her effort works more on the parody element than as a genuinely interesting whodunit.

The Other Half isn’t quite an accurate title; it’s really more like the upper 2%. Clemency O’Hara is found dead, clad in a ball gown and stilettos, with her throat slit postmortem, by British-Jamaican detective Caius Beauchamp on his morning run attempt up Hampstead Heath. Whilst Clemmy was meeting her death, her boyfriend and heir to a title Rupert Beauchamp (pronounced ‘Beecham,’ and no, there’s no relation) was throwing an ironic birthday party at a Kentish Town McDonald’s complete with champagne and chicken nuggets. Caius and his squad eventually trace Clemmy’s connection to Rupert, but he (much to Caius’ annoyance) has an alibi solidly corroborated by the host of Oxbridge classicist chums in attendance. Even as Caius and his team dig into the clues—a depressing number of which require sifting through Clemmy’s would-be influencer Instagram account—and although they eventually wind up with a confession, things still aren’t quite what they seem. After all, Rupert wasn’t shy about stating how much he wanted to dump Clemmy, and his relentless pursuit of Helena ‘Nell’ Waddingham. Only now, Nell wants nothing to do with Rupert ever since a fateful Athens trip where something mysterious went down. Caius knows there’s something he’s missing, but with pressure from above to wrap up the case without further involving the Honourable Rupert, he has to unravel a whole labyrinth of social connections to get Clemmy some justice. And when a few other upper crust bodies (and heads) start to pile up, Caius knows he’s right about the culprit—he just needs to prove it.

Vassell keeps it all light. Caius and his team aren’t fooled by the upper crust but neither are they aware of their own foibles. Caius’ efforts to remake himself in a stab to win back his oh-so-French girlfriend marks a nice contrast to the Homer-quoting aristocrats. Vassell’s bon mots sometimes threaten to overwhelm they mystery, but this really is more about poking fun at the denizens of a certain section of London real estate. As a mystery The Other Half coasts along without trying too hard, not unlike its characters in their nepotism-garnered internships. Are some of the digs at stereotypical rich behavior obvious? Sure. But did I laugh out loud at the one about how even the pigeons in Kensington have a slight cocaine habit? Yup. The Other Half is a fun read recommended for those who don’t take those cut-glass accents on Masterpiece Theatre too seriously and likes their satire sharp.

Apr 3, 2024