Suzy Spencer

(creator: Lis Howell)

Lis Howell
Suzy Spencer is a generally harassed and not too well organised working mother with spiky blond hair and a very casual appearance: "She wore flared jeans with patches on, and her hair could only be described as two-tone". And her house was said to be "a tip, toys and books everywhere, and the TV on in the afternoon". She is is a warm, affectionate and likeable woman who says (or swears) just what she thinks. She has a favourite saying, "If a job's worth doing it's worth doing badly,".

She lives in the village of Tarnfield in Cumbria in the North of England, When we first meet her, her son Jake is thirteen and her daughter Mollie is six. Her husband had decamped on her and she had found herself "stuck in a close-knit northern village where she had no friends, working for three days a week as an assistant producer at Tynedale TV, getting the odd bit of work for Granada in Manchester, looking after Jake and Molly, but with no social life of her own."

She had been talked into joining the local church, All Saints, although, she readily admits,"In fact, I don't think I believe much at all. I just like going to church. I like the singing and the building and the sense of peace." Her honesty and humility make her an engaging character.

Lis Howell (1951- ) was born in Liverpool and educated at the Liverpool Institute for Girls and Bristol University, where she read English Literature. She took a Postgraduate Diploma in Education at Trinity and All Saints College, but went on from there to get a reporting job with Radio Leeds. She moved on to reporter/presenter jobs at Border TV, Granada TV and Tyne Tees TV. She became Head of News at Border, then Deputy Programme Controller.

She moved to London as Managing Editor, Sky News. From there she became Director of Programmes at GMTV, then Director of Programmes at the new satellite channel UK Living, then Senior Vice President at Flextech, running Living, Trouble, Challenge and Bravo TV channels until she left to attend Harvard Business School. She joined the (London) City University journalism department as a visiting lecturer in television in 2002, and is now Director of Broadcasting there.

She has written five murder mystery novels, drawing on her experience as a television director and, more recently, as a regular church-goer and member of Bart’s Choir and Bart’s Chamber Choir in London. She is married to Richard (to whom, she says, the character of Robert Clark, "bears some resemblance") and they have a son, Alex.

The Flower Arranger at All Saints (2007)
The Flower Arranger at All Saints describes how a new young vicar, Nick the Vic, with a modern reforming way, but no skill at handling people or their problems, tries to force his ideas on what had been a pleasantly traditional church. Suzy Spencer, "working mother, part-time TV producer, sometime flower arranger and full-time mess" finds her herself allied with conservative widower and college lecturer Robert Clark (who turns out to have a secret of his own) in an attempt to hold the Nick's ideas in check while, at the same time they try to unravel the mysterious death of the regular flower arranger at All Saints, who had been found decoratively slain amidst her own handiwork in the church. And other attacks follow. It is Robert who recognises mysterious clues as referring to the book of Isaiah, but Suzy who eventually identifies the murderer, just in time to save her own children from a murderous attack.

Suzy herself emerges is a very real person. Most of the other characters, some of them distinctly erratic, have (rather improbably) a close connection with the church which is very much at the centre of the story. Indeed all the action takes place around Easter time, and there is an appropriate reading or prayer at the start of each chapter. But Suzy has little time for the self-righteous, such as the young man Kevin Jones who "had once cornered Suzy, his shaved head down like a charging bull, when she was putting out the rubbish early one Thursday for the bin-men, and asked her if she felt the congregation at All Saints really knew the Lord.
"Janice and I have had a personal experience of the living Jesus," he said. "We know he's with us even when we are doing things like hoovering and tidying the garden."
So that's where I've gone wrong, thought Susie; I really ought to try more weeding."

It is all written with this nice sense of humour, as when Suzy and Robert first meet after she has crashed a car through his garden fence: "What is it you do exactly?" Robert asks her.
"I'm a part-time producer on daytime TV. It's the sort of job that makes people at dinner parties treat you as a moron. Or a dangerous dumber-downer."
"And are you?"
"Absolutely not! Bondage and body piercing are the real issues of our time!" Robert wasn't sure if she was making fun of him or herself."
And the mutual admiration and attraction goes on from there. By the end of the book, Suzy is telling him, "If I do the Christmas flower arrangements at All Saints I need to get my hands on your variagated holly bush!"
"Robert didn't know whether to laugh or kiss her. So he did both."

There are so many characters that the story is not always entirely easy to follow - a list of characters at the start might have helped. But some, like the outwardly respectable middle-aged English gentleman, who lives with his younger camp boyfriend, make a couple you will not easily forget. And the lethal Yvonne who likes to control everybody and is a highly effective blackmailer, is another formidable personage. She too is a regular attender at the church because "a well-kept, well-run church is an asset to any community. Heaven knows what would happen to property values round here if the church was turned into a tile warehouse or something."

At first the story meanders along at a leisurely pace but it gathers speed and interest when the enthusiastic, if basically ignorant and arrogant, young vicar sets about imposing his New Vision on the old church. But it all ends in a melodramatic climax that doesn't quite seem to fit the cosy, entertaining, storytelling style. The author herself likes to feel that her books are realistic "with a strong sense of the darkness of human nature, but without the forensic gore that is so popular." But she is at her best with the lighter and more entertaining parts of her story.

The Chorister at the Abbey (2008)
The Chorister at the Abbey takes place some 18 months after the events in the previous book. The shocking discovery of the leading bass singer's body at Norbert College, with teeth smashed in, causes problems both for the college and for the Norbridge Abbey Chorus, and the harmony of the ancient Cumbrian market town is threatened. Suzy Spencer and Robert Clark (who lectures at the college) find themselves drawn in to help their friends.

This book differs from the previous one as most of the action takes place in the town of Norbridge, and Suzy herself plays a less prominent part in the story until she finally (and literally) unmasks the criminal at the end. Meanwhile Robert has moved in to live with her (although she is not divorced from her absent husband Nigel), and she is busy discovering that he is not quite the saintly figure she had supposed: "The fun and honesty have all gone. We can't talk. He's terribly nice, but cold and distant."

There is a large cast of characters (not all of them too convincing) and it is not always easy to remember who is who. Even the writer of the book's blurb must have found it all rather confusing because he/she describes Norbridge College as a "music college" rather than as a college with a music department, and mentions "a copy of a psalm" lying by the victim's body, but it was actually a psalter, with the front page missing. There are, in fact, numerous mentions of psalms throughout, with even a quote from one at the start of each chapter.

The blurb goes on to explain that the murder caused "members of the Norbridge Abbey Chorus to panic", but in fact it seemed to attract additional members, all with their own motives for joining. They are soon all busy rehearsing Stainer's Crucifixion. But the story is distinctly slow-moving and parts of it, such as the extended genealogical references to Cecil Quaile Woods, a Victorian clergyman, and possible ancestor to the local vicar, get increasingly tedious.

At the end, on Good Friday evening, when Suzy is sitting in the Abbey, waiting for The Crucifixion to begin, "the stark wooden altar symbolised the bleakness of a world which for three days believed God to be dead. But I don't, Susie thought to herself. Not any more. When she had felt that only she herself could bring about the triumph of good over evil, she had prayed with a desperation she didn't know was possible. And she knew that something had happened in reply .... Last night , her actions had saved other people - with help from some agency beyond mere humanity. She would never think of herself as vulnerable again. At last, she had moved on."

It would have been interesting to have learnt more about this change of heart. As it is, Suzy herself seems to have lost much of her sense of fun and is much less of the zany character she used to be, and, all in all, the book does not really live up to the humorous promise of its predecessor.

There is an brief article about the author on the People Matter site.

Please sign my GUEST BOOK. All comments, contributions (or corrections) welcomed!


The Flower Arranger at All Saints cover
The Chorister at the Abbey cover
The books have quite attractive covers, even if the lower one is a little reminiscent of a Christmas card. Further Norbridge Chronicle books are planned.
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