Nancy Atherton's "Aunt Dimity" series of mysteries have always been light and fluffy, but her latest, Aunt Dimity Down Under, makes the previous novels in the series feel like Stephen King novels. This book reads like a New Zealand travelogue with just a touch of vanilla spice. If this is your cup of tea, you'll enjoy it. Other readers should stay far away.
Love is in the air in the sleepy English village of Finch as Lori Shepherd and the rest of the townspeople prepare for the wedding of the town's Romeo and Juliet (without the harsh ending). Yes, it's finally time for Kit Smith and Nell Harris to have the wedding of the century. Unfortunately, all this preparation goes for naught when it's announced that Ruth and Louise Pym, the village's eldest residents, are dying. They have an unusual request for Lori: track down their long-lost brother Aubrey before death claims them. Lori's search will lead her to New Zealand and a trek that will span the entire country before she finally finds what she's looking for. But will what she finds want anything to do with the Pyms?
Aunt Dimity Down Under seems to have been written to either showcase Atherton's knowledge of New Zealand or to give her an excuse to go down there and do some research - the New Zealand Travel Bureau couldn't have written a better advertisement for the country. Lori gets whisked north and south, east and west, to the southern island then back again, visiting Auckland, Wellington, and many natural wonders and resorts (must be nice to be independently wealthy along with having all of your expenses paid).
Lori is aided by her husband's best friend, Cameron Mackenzie, a native Kiwi who relishes showing her the sites as well as scaring her half to death with tales of volcanoes erupting, earthquakes, and flying his personal plane into the teeth of a harsh weather system. He also delights in using (and explaining) a bunch of Kiwi terms that Atherton seems to like to indulge in. Even dear old Aunt Dimity gets into the act, telling Lori that she simply must see certain sites that she heard about when she was in the war helping some Kiwi soldiers (Aunt Dimity is long dead, but communicates with Lori through a journal, where Lori talks and Dimity's words appear in glowing ink).
I understand wanting to show off your research, and I don't begrudge Atherton the opportunity to do so, but usually it's not quite as blatant as it is in Aunt Dimity Down Under. I've said before that the Aunt Dimity universe is cursed with everybody being "nice" - even the villains are often just misunderstood. Here somebody is actually a bad apple through and through. Unfortunately, he's not a character in the book but somebody who has just died and made Lori's job harder by forcing his daughter to run away from him.
Another problem: most of these characters would have to work very diligently to even achieve a second dimension, much less a third one. Lori is, of course, the person readers know and identify with, though even she's coming close to losing that third dimension. She never achieves any insight or changes in any way. She's stubborn and nosy at the beginning of the book, and she is at the end, too. Cameron isn't even three-dimensional, with nothing more to his character than his past with Lori's husband and his being a workaholic (hence why his wife encouraged him to help Lori and to stay away from his business for a few days). The other characters they meet, even their ultimate prey, aren't any better.
My final complaint - maybe long-time readers of the series can correct me on this - is that for some strange reason, Atherton has decided that this entire series takes place before 2003. Atherton uses to a great extent the fact that Peter Jackson is "currently" making the Lord of the Rings films in New Zealand; it even becomes a bit of a plot point. All this time I thought the series took place in the present, so to have this thrust upon me was quite the rude awakening.
One good thing I will say about this book is that Atherton has made a couple of big changes in the mythology of the series, namely the village of Finch. I am glad that she's willing to modify some things to keep the series fresh. The new addition to the village cast gave me a good feeling, as long as Atherton handles her right. She's not any more three-dimensional than the others, but I like what I see so far.
Sadly, Aunt Dimity Down Under only works for the true Dimity fan.