Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Murder at the Mendel: Gail Bowen

Murder at the Mendel (1991) is the second in the Joanne Kilbourn series by Gail Bowen, following Deadly Appearances (review here). At this point, Joanne has moved to Saskatoon and taken a temporary job teaching at a college while she finishes a biography that she has been writing. Two of her children are in college in Saskatoon: Mieka, her daughter, and Peter, her eldest son. Peter and her youngest son, Angus, live with her.

An old friend from childhood has shown up again in Joanne's life, and Joanne is not quite sure how to take her reappearance. The friend, Sally, is estranged from her mother and her husband and child, and has shocked some citizens of Saskatoon with her latest works of art, a group of paintings titled "Erotobiography." She was also involved in a very tragic event in Joanne's life when both women were in their teens. This book is a story of relationships, family, and trust. It is very different from the first book in the series but does explore similar themes.

As in the first book in the series, the story is told in first person and Joanne is not really doing any sleuthing. But there are murders and the reader (at least this one) is interested in figuring out who the culprit is and what the motives might be.  Joanne is not the best judge of anyone's actions or motives in this case, because of her deep involvement with Sally and her family.

My take:

I enjoyed the book very much. The story of Joanne and her family and friends and how they cope with the deaths was as interesting as the investigation of the crime, which is almost in the background.

I enjoyed it so much that I went out and bought the next two books in the series before I had finished this one. I want to see how the series develops. And, the fourth book, A Colder Kind of Death, won the Arthur Ellis award for best novel.

I am not overly fond of amateur detectives in mystery novels, so I was just as glad that Joanne was not actively involved in trying to aid in discovering the murder. I am enjoying reading about real locales in Canada, and Gail Bowen does a great job of describing Saskatoon and its people.

It was also fun to read a reference to a landmark in California. Sally is describing a trip with an older man who was her mentor. The motel referenced is The Madonna Inn.
"... Once he did a class in San Luis Obispo for a month or so." She smiled at the memory. "Oh, Jo, we stayed at this motel that had fantasy rooms -- a real fifties place -- the court of Louis, jungle land, the wild west, that kind of thing."
I read this mystery for the Canadian Book Challenge 6. This is my twelfth Canadian book that I have read for that challenge.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

H is for Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

Today I am featuring Fell Purpose (2009) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles for my submission for the Crime Fiction Alphabet meme.

My theme for the meme this year is mysteries that feature policemen as the main character. I am looking for books that highlight the detailed investigation of a crime and feature the use of forensic science, but there is much variety in the police procedural sub-genre, and I am not a stickler for this guideline. In this case, the book fits my goal in every way.

Description from the Kirkus review site:
Zellah Wilding, just shy of 17, always did exactly as she was told. She was sweet, she was smart, she never misbehaved—or so her daddy thought until she turned up togged out like a tart, her lights turned permanently off by a pair of tights. Finding out who strangled her falls to DI Bill Slider of the Metropolitan Police, Shepherd’s Bush, West London. Slider learns from her schoolmates at St. Margaret’s that Zellah not only disobeyed her controlling father, but had recently dropped a déclassé young beau in favor of someone else she refused to name.
The detective and his crew:

In earlier books, Slider has had marital issues which resolve over time. His right-hand man and friend, Atherton, who is also a constant throughout the series, is known for his relationship troubles. Given this, you can see that this is a police procedural series that focuses not only on the crime but on the lives of it characters.

In this book, for the first time, Slider seems to finally be at peace with life. There are always issues brewing in the background (finding a place to live that he and his wife can afford AND have room for the baby, his worries about being a good father for the children of his first marriage). Life is never easy but his personal life (and Atherton's) seems to be less hectic in this book.

There is a whole team of policemen that work with Slider that we meet and get to know. In addition to Atherton, there is his supportive boss, Porson, who provides comic relief with his invented vocabulary and mixed-up sayings.There are many others: the constables, the office manager, the forensic pathologist.

My take:

I struggled with this review because I want to convey the good points of the series overall. This book is definitely not the best of the lot, but it is a fine police procedural. I discovered this author in 2006 with Orchestrated Death (1991), the first book in the series. I read the next five books that year, then read books seven through eleven over the next few years. I just finished Fell Purpose and have the next in the series, Body Line, in the TBR pile.

The investigation is always primary in all of the books, but in this series we know that the policemen have lives and families and that life is not just work for these men. The author has garnered praise for all the books and I hope that I can convince those unfamiliar with it to try at least one of these books.

There is plenty of humor in this series, but a lot of it is buried in the language  and wordplay. (In fact, a lot of it passes me by entirely.) For instance, Porson is nicknamed Syrup because he used to wear a wig, and rhyming slang for wig is syrup. Not being up on rhyming slang, I did not get this until I read the page at Harrod-Eagles' website on rhyming slang. I point this out not because it made much difference to my enjoyment of the book, but because that is one element that makes these books so unique (and that many of its fans enjoy).

Although the crime is heinous and the police department takes the investigation very seriously, this book has a lighter tone than most in the series. This is a series I would recommend reading in order. However, this one can definitely stand alone and is very entertaining.

The speech of some of the police officers and suspects is in dialect, which I appreciated as realistic, but sometimes distracting. On the other hand, the story has clearly not been re-edited for the US audience which I really appreciate. I want the novel that I read to be exactly as the author wrote it. I think "translating" terms I might not understand insults me, and sometimes changes the meaning or the mood.
Other tidbits:

Felony and Mayhem, who have reprinted the first in the series, have a nice biography of Harrod-Eagles on their site.  Here is an overview of Orchestrated Death (1991) at the same site which praises the book for the authors use of puns.

Harrod-Eagles has a very comprehensive (and entertaining) site about her writings. Check here for more information on the Bill Slider series. In addition to writing this relatively long police procedural series (fifteen books at this point), she has written an even longer historical series, the Morland Dynasty, comprising 34 books.

This series has a resemblance to the Lloyd and Hill series by Jill McGown. That series has less humor, but it also combines investigations by a large team of detectives and support personnel and progressive changes in the lives of the main players, with a developing relationship, this time between two detectives.

Please visit the post at Mysteries in Paradise to check out other entries for the letter H.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

A Talent to Deceive: an Appreciation of Agatha Christie

I have been a fan of Robert Barnard for many years. He has been writing mysteries for over 35 years and has published over 40 mystery novels or books of short stories. He has also written several non-fiction books, and one of these is an appreciation of the writings of Agatha Christie. That book is titled A Talent to Deceive, and was published in 1980, when Barnard had published only five or six mystery novels.

Excerpts from the dust jacket:
Robert Barnard, himself a crime writer and professor of English literature, has brought insight and sound judgement to his study of Agatha Christie's books. He examines the qualities that made them, as every one knows, the third-best-selling books in the world after the Bible and Shakespeare. He discusses her thrillers and especially her crime novels - those "intellectual puzzles of a certain rarefied kind." There is an analysis of her masterful solutions, of her stratagems of deception, including her ability to divert the reader's attention from the matter of real importance, and of her skill in making the clues relate to the reader's own experience.
... he places Christie firmly in her own social class and time. There is an in-depth study of three Christie novels and of her detective characters.
Recently, when I began reading Christie's novels (or, in some cases, re-reading), I decided to find a copy of that book. It took a while, but I found a nice copy. When I received it, I was disappointed because he tells me, up front, that he has included spoilers.
I found it impossible to write a book of this sort, dealing to a large extent with the kinds of deception Christie practices on her readers, without revealing solutions from time to time.
I should have known better. Most of the mystery reference books I own do mention facts that I consider spoilers, even though they may not reveal the solution or the culprit. So, since I really do not want to know who is the culprit in the Agatha Christie books I read, I will have to make do with reading portions here and there until I have read all or most of her books.

Barnard tells the reader that most spoilers would be in in chapters IV -VI, so I can probably read around those chapters.

In the first chapter, he discusses criticisms of Christie's style of writing. He explains where these criticisms may be valid. In the second chapter, he talks about the books written in the 1920's. They are about evenly divided between thrillers involving espionage and conspiracy theories, and straight detective stories. He says that Christie found the detective story harder to write, and was honing her skills in that area at that time.

The third chapter is titled "The Road to Mayhem Parva" and talks mainly about her development of the type of story set in an English village. This type of English village was given the name Mayhem Parva by Colin Watson in his book, Snobbery with Violence.

And now I am at Chapter IV and will not read further. Yet. I found the first three chapters and the Preface very interesting. He notes in the Preface that this book is not written as literary criticism or an academic study, but as an appreciation. What I had not realized until I started reading the book is that it was written when Barnard had only published a few (five or six?) of the mystery novels he authored.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

G is for Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza

Today I am featuring The Silence of the Rain by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza for the letter G in the Crime Fiction Alphabet. This is the first of a police procedural series that stars Inspector Espinosa of the First Precinct in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

This book is divided into three sections. The first section, which makes up about half of the book, is told in third person and we get the stories of three persons affected by a suicide that appears to be murder. These three persons are the detective investigating the murder and two other persons, one who sees the suicide take place, and  Rose, the secretary of the dead man.

The middle section is written in first person from the point of view of the detective, so at that point we are just getting what he knows about the event. The smallest section, at the end, returns to third person to tie up all the events. Well, sort of.

This is one of the strangest mystery novels I have read in a long time. The first event, the suicide, leads to crimes committed by other persons, and we the reader know why this is happening. The detective is trying to work his way through all the relationships of persons involved with the dead man and none of them make sense to him. In the end the crimes are solved but there are still some unresolved issues and a lot of unanswered questions. Yet this did not leave me feeling unsatisfied. I enjoyed this book through each section and I am eager to find another book in this series and see if the author can live up to this first experience.

This is a police procedural, but most of the story is how the detective follows up on leads and hunches, and very little of it relates to forensic evidence. There is an examination of the body, of course, but the evidence points so strongly to murder, that they fail to look for evidence of suicide. I would have questioned the validity of this except that the detective comments on the lack of technology in Brazil and how the tests that would be available to US detectives are not available in his department.

The reader is subtly introduced to aspects of the Brazilian culture. The existence of a very poor sector and homeless children. The prevalence of kidnappings and even businesses set up to negotiate kidnappings and recovery of the kidnap victim. The detective also comments on the lack of trust between police officers; it appears there are more corrupt officers than trustworthy ones.

What I loved most was that the detective is a book lover. His apartment is stacked with books. He stops by used bookstores several times during the story.
Another Saturday was upon him, and he had once again resolved to organize the books in his apartment. He was looking forward to a rainy day. Nothing better than a rainy day to inspire him to arrange his books.
...he decided to continue organizing his books into a kind of "living bookcase." The section he had done the Saturday before was still standing, which encouraged him to keep going as high as he could reach. At lunchtime he figured he hadn't made much progress--the first chapter of Nicholas Nickleby being responsible for the delay.
Please see these other excellent posts about this book or this series:
Margot at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist... featured Inspector Espinosa on her blog for Letter E last year.
Review at Mysteries in Paradise
Review at The View from the Blue House

The Crime Fiction Alphabet is sponsored by Mysteries in Paradise.  Please visit this post to check out other entries for this letter. This is the first translated book I have read this year and will count for the Books in Translation Reading Challenge and also for the Global Reading Challenge.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Ten Second Staircase by Christopher Fowler

The Bryant & May series, written by Christopher Fowler, is about two elderly detectives who, even though they are well past retirement age, are the leading detectives in the Peculiar Crimes Unit in London. Ten Second Staircase is the fourth book in this series.

You ask what the Peculiar Crimes Unit is? From a memorandum in the first chapter of Ten Second Staircase:
The Peculiar Crimes Unit was founded, along with a handful of other specialist departments, soon after the outbreak of World War II, as part of a government initiative to ease the burden on London's overstretched Metropolitan Police Force, by tackling high-profile cases which had the capacity to compound social problems in urban areas. The crimes falling within its remit were often of a politically sensitive nature, or could potentially cause social panics and general public malaise.
If you want to know more about the detectives and their setting, there is a great description at the the author's website.

The first Bryant & May Mystery was Full Dark House. In that book, the setting alternates between London in the early 21st century and 1940's London, during the Blitz. There are two plot lines: the very first case that the two policemen worked together and the current case, obviously very late in their careers. The two cases seem to be connected.

I read Full Dark House in 2006 and it is one of the few mysteries I took the time to record my feelings about. This is what I said:
The two main characters are opposites and the joining of their contrary skills has resulted in the successful resolution of many cases over the years. This story emphasizes the growing pains associated with adjusting to the new relationship. At least at the beginning of the relationship, Bryant is the senior policeman and May is the new man in the department, although both of them are about the same age and very young. Both major and minor characters (of which there are many) have depth. A good read, one that has me looking forward to following future Bryant and May mysteries.
The second book in the series, The Water Room, involves an impossible murder by drowning and London’s system of underground rivers. In the third book, Seventy-Seven Clocks, several members of a family are murdered by various bizarre means in a case from 1973. It includes a crafts guild, Gilbert and Sullivan references, and I remember being thoroughly confused. I read those books in 2009.

And now we have arrived at of Ten Second Staircase. Here is a brief introduction from Goodreads:
It’s a crime tailor-made for the Peculiar Crimes Unit: a controversial artist is murdered and displayed as part of her own outrageous installation. No suspects, no motive, no evidence—but this time they do have an eyewitness. A twelve-year-old claims the killer was a cape-clad highwayman atop a black stallion. Whoever the killer really is, he seems intent on killing off enough minor celebrities to become one himself.
I enjoyed the beginning of the book because there were several elements that introduced the Peculiar Crimes Unit and the team and gave some background. Since I had not read the series for a while, this was welcome. The first chapter is a memorandum from the Acting Head of the unit (who has been acting head since 1973) to the Home Office Liaison Officer explaining his concerns about Bryant and May and the unit. John May's granddaughter joins the unit and gets an introduction to the varied staff. Then Bryant gives a speech to a group of teenaged students, which provides even more background. And sets up one of the premises of the novel, the divide between youth and adults.

The Bryant & May series has many good points. The author uses historical facts and actual locations in London in his stories. He highlights social issues. In my opinion, though, the characterizations and the relationships in the novel are the best feature; the people are complex and don't always act as you expect them to.

I like the police procedural aspects also. Although Bryant is known for his desire to look for supernatural elements and use witches and mysticism in his quest for the truth, the unit has and uses forensics and computer expertise.

I found myself bogged down in the middle of the story and getting quite frustrated. I have read books that kept me interested all the way through then fell flat at the end. This one was the opposite. It had a "wow" finish. May's granddaughter, April, who seemed like a throwaway character, becomes real and interesting. All the seemingly disparate threads pulled together to give me a sense of closure.

This book explores the tension between youth (teens, in this case) and older adults, and the difficulties of a changing society. That is putting it very simply, and of course the book does a much better job of getting this across. Such divides have always existed, but with two elderly detectives, the author can use his characters and setting to reveal what we may not see in our everyday lives.

I recommend the series if you have not given it a try. Some readers find them very funny. I find them darker, although I applaud Christopher Fowler for focusing on the ills of society. I introduced these books to my son, and he has read the first eight books. He keeps pushing me to read more of them. I have recommended this series to my husband, because of the emphasis on buildings in London. He has read Rune, by the same author, which features Bryant and May (as secondary characters?) and could be considered the first book in the series.  He enjoyed it very much.

Note the differences in the two covers I feature. These are scans of the covers of my copies of the books.  I paid a pretty penny years ago to get a UK cover of the first book ... because I loved the cover so much. My copy of Ten Second Staircase is a trade paperback edition published in the US. I find the UK covers much superior.

Here are some other good posts on Bryant and May mysteries:
In the Spotlight at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist...
A review of the 10th book in the series at Pretty Sinister Books.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

F is for A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny

Today I am featuring A Fatal Grace (2006) by Louise Penny for my submission for the Crime Fiction Alphabet meme. This is the second in a series of mysteries set in a small village in Quebec. We meet our victim as this book opens, although she does not die until we are about 60 pages into the book:
Had CC de Poitiers known she was going to be murdered she might have bought her husband, Richard, a Christmas gift. She might even have gone to her daughter's end of term pageant at Miss Edward's School for Girls, or 'girths' as CC liked to tease her expansive daughter. Had CC de Poitiers known the end was near she might have been at work instead of in the cheapest room the Ritz in Montreal had to offer.
The victim of murder in this novel is a very self-centered and hard-to-like person who has a higher opinion of herself than anyone else does. She has recently come to live in Three Pines, a picturesque village in Quebec, and has already alienated many of the residents.

The investigator is Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, of the Surete de Quebec. He has been in the village of Three Pines previously to investigate another death, and thus is already familiar with the members the community. Gamache is a likable character, a dedicated policeman yet compassionate. I have often said that I prefer a fairly normal protagonist, especially as a police investigator, and am growing tired of flawed and damaged policemen. In this case, Gamache is a little too perfect for me, but still an interesting character.

The other members of the police team are also interesting, as is the intrigue that is going on within the police department, as is gradually revealed. The townspeople of Three Pines are well developed as characters. I like the interior dialogue of some of these characters that is shared with the reader.

I can see some similarities to the Gregor Demarkian series by Jane Haddam. In both, you get a few chapters at the beginning setting up some of the characters that will be involved in or affected by the events, providing some idea of where they fit in. The difference is that many of the characters in the Louise Penney books are continuing characters, while in the books by Jane Haddam, usually it is a new set of characters or suspects with each novel.

Other reviewers have compared the Three Pines Mystery series to the writing of Agatha Christie. I can see the comparison, since both sometimes feature very convoluted crimes that are almost impossible to solve, or even believed to be possible. And the very capable sleuth eventually figures out the solution, with some red herrings and false starts. I think, however, that many readers enjoy this series more for the characters and the setting than the mystery.

This is a true police procedural. Clues are followed up on and evaluated. We learn about the autopsy and the technical feasibility of the crime. Gamache depends a lot on his evaluations and understandings of the community and the victim and her relationships, but evidence and motive is most important.

The Crime Fiction Alphabet is sponsored by Mysteries in Paradise.  Please visit this post to check out other entries for this letter.

Also, this is my eleventh book for the Canadian Reading Challenge.

This is a hugely successful series. The first book in the series, Still Life, won many awards: the New Blood Dagger (2006) of the Crimewriters Association (UK), the Arthur Ellis Award (2006) of the Crime Writers of Canada (Canada), the Anthony Award (2007) (USA) and the Barry Award (2007) (USA). This book won the Agatha Award for Best Traditional Mystery, 2007 (USA). There are eight books in the series, so far. The eighth, A Beautiful Life, also won the  Agatha Award for Best Traditional Mystery, just recently. The ninth, How the Light Gets In, is due out in August, 2013.

I would recommend this series, at least the first one, just on the basis of the awards and the reviews I have read. Ultimately it depends on what you want from a book; this is not a light book, and it has its dark moments. The overall message is positive.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Devil in a Blue Dress (film)

Walter Mosley published Devil in a Blue Dress, his first novel, in 1990. In 1995, a film adaptation was made of the novel, directed by Carl Franklin, starring Denzel Washington as Easy Rawlins. The movie was critically acclaimed when it was released, but did not do well financially.

The last time I saw Devil in a Blue Dress was in 1999, so it is amazing how much I remembered about the movie. Most films or books that I watched or read that long ago are just a hazy memory. Perhaps it was the setting, Los Angeles in the late 1940's, or perhaps it was the fine acting by Denzel Washington and Don Cheadle, who played the role of Mouse, Easy's friend.

Ezekial "Easy" Rawlins is a black man who has come back from serving in the military in World War II and was able to purchase a house in Los Angeles, California. At the beginning of the story, Easy has lost his job and is desperate for a new one to pay his mortgage. A white man pays Easy a very large sum to find a beautiful white woman, Daphne Monet. Easy is suspicious of the offer of such a large sum, but he is desperate for money. The more he gets involved with Daphne and her problems, the more dangerous his situation becomes. My review of the book is here.

This article by Andrew Pulver at the Guardian (from 2004) has a good overview of the movie as a book adaptation. I especially liked these comments, which summarize one of the main reasons I liked both the book and the movie:
Though indebted to classic LA noir, Franklin's film is as much a nostalgic treatment of African-American life in the immediate post-war years, examining the fledgling suburban communities of South Central and Compton that later became riot-torn, rundown and violent.
The film was shot in and around Los Angeles for the most part. Per the liner notes for the DVD:
For the film's largest exterior scene, a four-block section of downtown L.A.'s Main Street was transformed into 1948 Central Avenue. 200 extras, 100 period vehicles, and an authentic red car trolley were recruited to complete the illusion.
I felt like the movie was true to the book and a very good retelling of that story. There were some changes to the plot and the characters, but they were minor. There was a scene between Daphne and Easy towards the end of the book that did not show up in the movie. I did not like that element of the book anyway, so I did not miss it. According to the liner notes, all adjustments that Franklin made were approved by Mosley.

I liked all of the performances, and especially Denzel Washington as Easy; Don Cheadle as his friend Mouse; Tom Sizemore as Dewitt Albright, the white man trying to find Daphne; and Jennifer Beals as Daphne. Other reviewers commented negatively about Beals portrayal of Daphne, but I thought it was fine. Maybe I was swayed because I liked her in the short-lived TV series, The Chicago Code.

The music was also very good. The original score for the film was written by Elmer Bernstein. The soundtrack included selections from the time that the movie was set.

Racial themes are dealt with but they do not overpower the plot. In this case I liked the book and the movie equally. The book allows the reader to understand Easy's motivations and the racial tensions of the times in more depth, but the movie is atmospheric and conveys the mood of the times very well.

This article at Turner Classic Movies is a very good resource on the film.

This is the second movie I have watched and reported on for the Book to Movie Challenge 2013, hosted by Doing Dewey.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

A Red Herring Without Mustard: Alan Bradley

Flavia de Luce is the imaginative and entertaining narrator of A Red Herring Without Mustard. This book is the third in a series, set in post World War II Britain, in the village of Bishop's Lacey. Flavia is the youngest daughter (around 11 years old) in the de Luce family; she lives with her two sisters and their father. Her mother died when she was young. Each member of the family is unique, and none of them communicate their feelings very well. Thus Flavia is an outsider and a loner, in her family and in the community, and she seems to like it that way.

The series does require a good amount of suspension of disbelief. In reality, not many eleven-year-old protagonists can solve a mystery. Not many of them have crimes happen so close to home. But the author, Alan Bradley, is successful at convincing us that Flavia can do this. And he tells the story so beautifully.

The mystery, the exposure of the culprit or culprits in each book, is good, but not the main draw. The thing that keeps me coming back is Flavia, with her love of chemistry and science, her determination and her fearlessness.

We do have a policeman, Inspector Hewitt, that is sometimes at odds with Flavia. They have a mutual respect and liking for each other, although it is not always apparent.

Flavia plans to show Hewitt a body on the grounds of their estate:
“Hold on,” Inspector Hewitt said. “You’ll do no such thing. I want you to keep completely out of this. Do you understand, Flavia?”

“It is our property, Inspector,” I said, just to remind him that he was talking to a de Luce.

“Yes, and it’s my investigation. So much as one of your fingerprints at the scene and I’ll have you up on charges. Do you understand?”
Later, Flavia asks about some notes he is taking:
It’s not polite to ask ” he said with a slight smile. “One must never ask a policeman his secrets.”

“Why not ”

“For the same reason I don’t ask you yours.”

How I adored this man! Here we were the two of us engaged in a mental game of chess in which both of us knew that one of us was cheating.

At the risk of repetition, how I adored this man!
In Flavia's world, there are other mysteries. What happened to her mother? Why do her sisters torment her? How will they solve the problem of the lack of funds to support the estate? I actually wish they would work through these problems at a faster rate, although the first three novels seem to take place within the same year.

In my review of the first book in the series, I said that these books were not young adult books. I have since reconsidered that opinion. The books are on Young Adult book lists, and I think they work equally well for young adults or adults.

I have read and reviewed two of the series:
 The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
 The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag

Here are some other reviews of this book that may entice you to try the series.
A review by Sarah Weinman at National Post
At Mysteries in Paradise
At Stainless Steel Droppings

A Red Herring Without Mustard is the tenth book I have read for the Canadian Book Challenge 6, which began in July of 2012.

From the author's bio at the site for the Flavia de Luce series:
Alan Bradley was born in Toronto and grew up in Cobourg, Ontario. With an education in electronic engineering, Alan worked at numerous radio and television stations in Ontario, and at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute (now Ryerson University) in Toronto, before becoming Director of Television Engineering in the media centre at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, SK, where he remained for 25 years before taking early retirement to write in 1994. He became the first President of the Saskatoon Writers, and a founding member of the Saskatchewan Writers Guild.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

E is for Except the Dying by Maureen Jennings

From the Publisher's Weekly review of the book:
In this exhilarating first novel, Jennings creates more than a period mystery: she brings alive 1895 Toronto, struggling economically, teeming with immigrants and thick with paupers. William Murdoch is the police department's sole detective, a new rank. Investigating the murder of Therese Laporte, a young servant, leads the intelligent, observant Murdoch through a stratified society, from the gloomy rooms of prostitutes Alice Black and Ettie Weston to the elegant home of the Rhodes family, Therese's employers, and the exclusive Yeoman Club.
Based on what I have read, the picture of Toronto in 1895 is well done in this book.  But what I liked most about this book is the way the story is told, and the development of characters. William Murdoch is an Acting Detective, ambitious and intelligent. He wants to move up in rank, and he hopes this case will bring him some attention. The author takes us through the investigation slowly, introducing us to  the individuals involved. She describes the prejudices of the time and the hardships that the poorer inhabitants of Toronto lived with.

There was much more depth of character and richness of plot than I expected in a first novel.

Inspector Brackenreid, Murdoch's superior, is the son of an Irish immigrant and has known hardship in his youth.
Before his demons overtook him, he had been a shrewd, hard-working man with a certain meticulousness about detail that served him well. Now, those qualities were more and more obscured.

As inspector, Brackenreid wore a fine wool jacket with brocade epaulettes and frogs down the front. Murdoch could see stains on the brocade and even across the table he could smell the beery stink of the man's breath.
Donalda Rhodes is the wealthy mistress of the household where the dead girl worked. Initially it appears that Therese has left voluntarily. Donalda is quite fond of the girl and is unhappy that she has left without a word.
Edith went into the adjacent dressing room. Donalda was glad to be out of her sight. She could feel tears stinging at the back of her eyes. Inappropriate tears, she knew, but the anguish of her dream was still close and she was hurt by Theresa's callous behavior. In spite of the inequality between them she thought there had been real affection. She was obviously wrong.
Throughout the book we gradually learn more of the heartaches that Donalda has suffered, even though she lives a comfortable life as the wife of a doctor.

I initially became interested in Murdoch Mysteries when I discovered that several of the books had been adapted as TV movies for Canadian television. Although both the TV movies and books show the grim and dark side of Toronto of the time period, the adaptations feature more use of science and forensics in solving the crimes. I expected this aspect to show up in this first book in the series and it did not, to any extent.

Just as an aside, I did not like the cover of this book. I don't especially like book covers that feature pictures from a movie or TV show adaptation, in general. But in this case, the characters that are shown on the cover are characters from the TV show. And the women pictured have nothing to do with the plot of this novel. I am aware that it is probably the popularity of the TV show that has allowed for the reprint editions of this series, which is a very good thing. But the pictures on the cover should have more to do with the plot, in my opinion.

I recommend this book and plan to continue reading the series.

This post is an entry for the Crime Fiction Alphabet for 2013.  Please visit the post at Mysteries in Paradise to check out other entries for this letter. This year, I plan to stick to the theme of authors or books in the sub-genre of police procedurals.

This book is the ninth book I have read for the Canadian Book Challenge 6.