Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Looking for Clues: Three New Mysteries by Alan Bradley,Thomas Perry and Becky Masterman

Fans of Canadian writer Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce novels – and I freely confess I am one of them – will remember that at the end of The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, the sixth in the series, 11-year-old heroine Flavia – poison aficionado, investigator extraordinaire – discovered that her late mother and her very much alive Aunt Felicity, were members of a shadowy group of secret agents known as the Nide. And furthermore, that she, Flavia, was destined to join them. To further this end, Flavia is sent – is “banished” for her sins, she feels – to Toronto, to enroll in Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy, the private school her mother attended as a girl. As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust (Delacorte), Bradley’s seventh Flavia novel, chronicles our precocious preteen protagonist’s adventures in Canada. And you know there will be adventures. Sure enough, on Flavia’s first day at Miss Bodycote’s, a wrapped and mummified body falls out of the chimney into her room, ending up right at her feet. (Flavia has long demonstrated a world-class aptitude for finding dead bodies.) The Toronto police take charge of the body, of course, but that doesn’t stop Flavia from pursuing the identity of the victim and, of course, the murderer. And while she’s at it, she also looks into the ghost said to haunt Miss Bodycote’s and the rumours about girls disappearing over the years. Of course, she must also attend classes – including, much to her delight, a chemistry course taught by a woman acquitted of murder by poison – negotiate girls-boarding-school culture, investigate the school’s staff, and, not incidentally, deal with her training in the tradecraft of spying. It’s a charming jumble of clues, false trails and surprises, all narrated in Flavia’s droll, amusing voice. If I have a cavil, it’s that I miss the village of Bishop’s Lacey and its many delightful characters, the rambling, crumbling de Luce mansion Buckshaw, Flavia’s wicked older sisters, Ophelia and Daphne, faithful family retainers Dogger and Mrs. Mullet, and even Flavia’s sturdy, reliable bicycle, Gladys. So frankly, I was delighted to find that, after solving the many mysteries of Miss Bodycote’s (no spoiler), Flavia is headed back to England.

For nearly 20 years, and over the course of seven novels, Thomas Perry’s fictional heroine Jane Whitefield helped people disappear. But after the events of 2012’s Poison Flower, in which she was shot, captured and tortured, Jane has acceded to the wishes of her husband and, as Jane McKinnon, lived quietly in suburban Amherst, New York, volunteering for worthy causes, working to come back from her injuries and further exploring her roots in the Seneca community where she grew up. At the beginning of Perry’s eighth Jane Whitefield novel, A String of Beads (Mysterious Press), all this changes. As she returns from a run, Jane finds all eight Seneca clan mothers waiting for her. They have an “assignment”: Find Jimmy Sanders, a childhood friend who is suspected of murder and is being pursued by the police. He has disappeared, but if there’s one person who can find him, it’s Jane. She begins by following a trail they walked together as 14-year-olds, and eventually catches up to him. But there’s someone else on their trail, a state cop who knows how to track and survive in the woods. “He’s a problem,” Jane says. But with years of experience “guiding” victims of injustice and people in mortal danger, Jane knows how to stay hidden. The police, unfortunately, aren’t their only pursuers. A criminal gang has become involved, and they have the resources and the determination to be a real danger. The stakes get higher as Jane and Jimmy are joined by Jimmy’s mother and the wife of the murder victim. Eventually, Jane realizes she has no choice but to return to western New York and the reservation, to track down the real killer. Here the story turns into an investigative procedural, with Jane tracking down clues and uncovering hidden facts, even as the mob and the police close in on Jimmy and the others. Jane Whitefield is a terrific character, a strong and confident woman, and Perry is gifted at bringing the upstate New York landscape to life. Furthermore, his dexterous use of the details of Native American history, daily life and spiritual beliefs lends depth and colour to the fast-paced, riveting narrative. Altogether an informative, entertaining and deeply satisfying thriller.

Becky Masterman’s 2013 Edgar-nominated novel Rage Against the Dying introduced recently retired FBI field agent Brigid Quinn, 59, who is living contentedly in Tucson, Ariz., after a lengthy career chasing serial killers and operating undercover “posing as a prostitute, a drug runner, a human trafficker.” She’s back again in Masterman’s second, Fear the Darkness (Penguin Canada), still working as a private investigator, teaching self-defence to abused women and trying to get the hang of suburban living and marriage – her first, to former priest and current philosophy professor Carlo DiForenza. And because, as she points out, “You don’t make any friends working undercover,” she’s also learning to appreciate the value of her relationship with her new best pal Mallory Hollinger, a former art-gallery owner whose husband is “locked in,” totally paralyzed and unable to speak due to a tragic car-versus-train accident. But then two things happen that threaten Brigid’s comfortable life: Following up on a promise to her dying sister-in-law, she takes in her 17-year-old niece, Gemma-Kate. As well, she takes on the case of a 14-year-old boy who drowned in his family’s swimming pool six months before; the boy’s mother, still distraught, is unwilling to accept the police conclusion that the death was accidental, and against her better judgment, Brigid agrees to investigate. The first sign that things have gone wrong is the “accidental” poisoning of one of her two nameless pugs, and Brigid suspects that her niece knows more about the dog’s deadly illness than she’s letting on. Not only that, Brigid is feeling none too well herself. Her hands are trembling, her balance is unreliable, and she has spells where she blanks out. She fears she’s showing the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Then there’s a mass poisoning at a church social event, and the plot really begins to race. When Brigid finally gets a handle on the case of the drowned teen, she begins to sense a connection between the poisonings and the drowning. To say any more risks spoiling the several twists, half-twists and sharp turns of this dazzling story, so let’s leave it there. All the characters and the settings are sharply drawn, but the big attraction for me is the tough, straight-talking, strong-willed Brigid Quinn. After two books, I’m loving this series.

– Jack Kirchhoff is an arts writer and editor in Toronto.

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