Nathan’s review of Murder at Spindle Manor by Morgan Stang
Note: This is not an official SPFBO review from BWGB.
I’ve never been a huge fan of “whodunnits”, whether it be a book, movie, or tv show. I guess I just never found the appeal where the importance of a the story is just the big twist at the end vs. the development of characters and real emotions. I completely understand I’m probably creating a false binary here, but the whole “try to figure out how the author is tricking you” thing never really landed for me.
It then comes at a bit of a surprise for me then that I absolutely DEVOURED Murder at Spindle Manor by Morgan Stang. I have been in a four-month reading slump due to some health issues, and this book reminded me why I fell in love with reading in the first place. It’s witty, funny, propulsive, and populated with a wacky cast of characters that I wanted to spend many, many more pages with.
Spindle Manor takes place in a Gaslamp fantasy world populated by dark and dangerous creatures. Our main character, Isabeau, is a monster Huntress, tasked by the magical and powerful Nobles to stamp out these monstrous threats. Isabeau arrives at Spindle Manor to hunt down a creature who murders its victims and then duplicates their bodies – matching their appearance and mannerisms. This evil creature has left many bodies in its wake, and it is approaching the heavily populated urban center of Lamplight. Isabeau knows one thing – that the creature is currently one of the residents of Spindle Manor, and it is now up to her to figure out who before the creature murders again.
What makes this book work above all else is that the people currently staying at Spindle Manor are a messy and entertaining bunch. From a young married couple, their boisterous and rich cousin, to a mesmer, psychic, “living doll”, and more, Stang populates her book with such fascinating characters. None of them feel like they are just there to “be suspects”; instead, they feel fully fleshed out and alive. Stang’s characters are more than just detective-story tropes, as much as they all have their own secrets and motives for being a murderer.
When I initially started the book I was a bit hesitant about how Stang was going to pull off the “whodunnit” aspects of the novel. One of the issues with fantasy books in general is that they can always deus ex machina the reader with some magical worldbuilding element that the reader wasn’t privy to until the author wants to pull off some big twist. In epic fantasy I don’t actually mind this tactic because I want to be wowed and awed by the magic. In a book a whodunnit like Spindle Manor, however, I want to be able to put together the clues myself. I can honestly say that while Spindle Manor is full of magical giants, reanimated bodies, ghosts I still felt like I got to pull out my magnifying glass and notebook and be the detective. Stang plays fair with the reader, using the supernatural elements to add fun texture to her world without denying the ability for the reader to play along with the mystery.
Which is great because Spindle Manor is a whole heck of a lot of fun to read. This book is absolutely fun and delightful. If you like comedy of manners or droll, witty humor you will fall in love with this book (I found a lot of the humor reminiscent of Quenby Olson’s work if you like that kind of storytelling!). There is one scene involving a dead body and some porridge that had me laughing out loud while reading because the image of what was happening was so vivid in my mind. If you like the film Clue and similar mystery-comedies, you will feel right at home where with Spindle Manor.
The fun and humor present in Spindle Manor in no way take away from its immense worldbuilding. Stang creates a dark and foreboding world, where the sun is rarely seen and creatures hide around every corner. Stang masterfully balances the humor and ridiculousness of what is going on in Spindle Manor itself with a world that is dark and grey. While we readers don’t get to see most of the world because this book is limited to one group of characters at one hostelry, Stang promises a much bigger world to be explored in future books. There are even some speculative elements that aren’t explained at all in this book that I cannot wait to see further fleshed out in future installments. By the end of Spindle Manor you will get all of the answers to the major burning mysteries, but Stang also leaves several plot threads simmering that will make you anxious to pick up the next book.
Is there anything not to like about Spindle Manor? Not a lot! My only real criticism is that the book starts to lag just a bit in the middle. There are a lot of diversions (including a séance) that are a lot of fun and allow for some really great character moments, but in terms of the mystery provide relatively little. Readers who like their mysteries to feel like everything little thing must contribute to directly solving the mystery may find some of the diversions a bit tedious. If you are like me, though, and are in it for the fun then you cannot beat talking to ghosts and human-animal hybrid monsters.
Concluding Thoughts: If you are looking for your next fun fantasy romp or your next engaging murder mystery, you really can’t go wrong with Murder at Spindle Manor. Brimming with an eclectic cast of characters, fun supernatural elements, and a Gaslamp world I cannot wait to dive back into, Morgan Stang has a real winner on her hands. Stang combines all of the great tropes of the murder-mystery genre (red herrings, suspect interviews, a prolonged reveal of the culprit) with a riotous energy and dark fantasy elements. Moving at a brisk pace and only a bit over 200 pages long, you definitely owe it to yourself to pick this one up and try it for yourself.