Sex in the shires

Score!

Jilly Cooper <em>Bantam Press, 608pp, £16.99</em>

The eyes of the world are fixed on a small corner of the Cotswolds. At a stately mansion, crammed with ghosts and torture-chambers, the satanic conductor Rannaldini has teamed up with the impossibly sexy French director, Tristan de Montigny, to make an all-star film of Verdi's Don Carlos.

Beastly Rannaldini is obsessed with his step-daughter, Tabitha Campbell-Black. When not drooling over Tab's body, or gnashing over her indifference, he is gathering the dark secrets of the rest of the cast - and absolutely everybody has one. Rannaldini is found murdered (around page 225) and the queue of suspects stretches round the block. Was it Tristan, whose dad is not his dad? Tab, inveigled into marrying her father's worst enemy? Tab's outraged father? Or any one of the unfortunates Rannaldini has secretly photographed while they were shagging the wrong people?

The chaotic splurge that passes for a plot in Jilly Cooper's latest is packed with silliness. But that is its great charm. Cooper's "Rutshire", as devotees of her earlier novels know well, is actually Eden, as described by W H Auden in his famous essay on Dickens. "Eden is a world of pure being and absolute uniqueness . . . everyone is incomparable . . . The only motive for an action is the pleasure it gives the actor, and no deed has a goal or an effect beyond itself."

When you look at the blood-spattered rose on the cover, you need not fear that by trying her fair hand at crime, Cooper has left her safe world of manic bonking followed by eternal married bliss. Murder can exist in Eden, as long as order is restored as soon as the murderer is caught, and the dismal events increase the happiness of the innocent: "Darling, I never knew how much I loved you, until two totally nasty people we all hated were bumped off!"

In Cooper's pleasant land, only those who are cruel to dogs meet bloody ends - and quite right, too. Readers new to her oeuvre may be rather taken aback by the enormous importance dogs are given in this novel. Those who know Cooper's Eden from Polo, Riders or her meisterwerk, Rivals, will understand. For instance, when I mentioned to my sister, also a fan, a rather needlessly elaborate canine funeral in Score!, she cried: "Oh, no! Not Gertrude!"

Score! suspends the brain in a happy trance of romance, glamour, seismic sex and delightful comedy. The good end happily, the bad unhappily. You know that no truly deserving heart shall be broken here - which is why the murder is its least successful element (not that it matters). Cooper sweetly and modestly admits, in the acknowledgements, that she would have given up altogether "had it not been for the kindness and co-operation of the Gloucester and Stroud police . . . their only disagreement was whether the male member remains erect after the moment of death".

They must be real darlings, and lovers of Eden, because the hopeless police in Score! would not recognise a murderer if he presented a business card with "murderer" printed on it in large letters. "It says 'murderer' here, sarge - worth looking into." You, the reader, will know whodunnit almost immediately. You may even recognise the criminal, from the "Agatha Christie Book of Homicidal Cliches". The real suspense, as usual, lies in who will end up in the arms of whom. This kept me fretting and guessing until three in the morning.

I don't care for the title of this tome, which suggests football, and I think the exclamation mark is a mistake. In real life, I know perfectly well that classical musicians are neither sexy nor stylish, and I have never seen any production of Don Carlos in which a dog eats a slipper. I know what serious, unpopular fiction looks like, and I know this is not it - thank God. To criticise Score! for its daftness is to miss the point. Like the Edens of early Dickens and P G Wodehouse, this book is a slice of heaven; pure, blissful escapism.