Under the Dragon's Tail, Maureen Jennings, McClelland & Stewart, $16.95.
Anne Perry may be the big noise in Victorian mystery, but for sheer enjoyment, Victoria Thompson has taken her on, and now for writing chops, theme, and character, Maureen Jennings is more than a match. Perry has had it both ways in her books—she portrays the wealthiest bits of society, while dipping into the underbelly of it as well. But the pretty dresses, houses and play of manners can keep you from remembering that life under Queen Victoria, for most people, was no picnic. While Jennings' William Murdoch books are set in Toronto rather than London, there's a similar feel, and Murdoch, after all, has a portrait of the good Queen on the wall of his office, though it is often covered with flies that come in from the brewery next door.
Murdoch is no wealthy exiled scion of a wealthy family, a la Charlotte Pitt, though he lives comfortably enough in two whole rooms in an agreeable boarding house. The life of most of the other characters in the book seems fairly miserable and it makes you, as a reader, pleased that the capable, common sensical Murdoch is around to sort things out. In this novel, Jennings tells the story of murdered midwife Dolly Merishaw. Though the fact that she was murdered is in doubt in the minds of the police on the case, I doubt it will be for any mystery reader. It's no surprise when the manner of her death is actually discovered.
Jennings has a really light hand with character and nuance. She takes many disparate, seemingly unrelated threads and ties them together in a believable fashion by the end of the book, but the story (a good one) almost pales next to her real gifts with character and place. There are Dolly's two miserable foster boys; a lonely and disfigured if wealthy housewife; an actress with a sister who's pregnant but has no husband; and the deaf and mute daughter of the murdered woman. Together they form a rich tapestry of life in 1890's Toronto. You can almost smell the streets and the small, close rooms where most of the characters live and work.
She ends the book with a real tour de force scene—so lightly included that it's clear Jennings enjoys her craft and sharing it with us. I'll just say that at the end of the book, Murdoch is literally pulled in two different directions. Detective Murdoch is a gift, and so is the talented Ms. Jennings.
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