Saturday, March 29, 2008

Gifts & Bones

I don't know what it is this week, but I seem to be running in place and the days are simply flying by! I haven't had a chance to do much reading -- I am not sitting still long enough to read many pages at any one time. Sigh. But, I have finished one novel, a light mystery I received from the author last year (!!) at the Canadian Book Expo. I was in the mood for something mysterious, and it is set in Newfoundland, so I'm counting it toward the Canadian Book Challenge as well! Here's my take on:

I really enjoyed this one! (and also enjoyed the publisher's website -- someone has a great sense of humour). This mystery is the first is a projected series, called the Bea & Mildred Mysteries. The second, Isabella's Passion, is due out in 2008. The actual physical heft of this book was satisfying; it was nicely produced, with an atmospheric cover, good paper weight, and a good choice of font and typesetting. I notice these things, because especially with very small presses or self-published books, sometimes the physical book is off-putting or amateur. Not so this one. I don't think I caught a single typo in the whole thing -- which is good, because that just so distracts me from the story. (obsessive, I know). ANYHOW -- on to the story.

Set in 1902 Newfoundland, it features one class of person, shop employees and servants, who work for a second class of person, rich newcomers to St. John's. The Stevens, comprised of Henry, Penelope, and their sons George and Brian, are the family that our main character Bea eventually works for. The family is dysfunctional, and Bea's friend Natty (who first works for them) complains about the cold way they treat Brian, who swats his hands at the air and is very confused much of the time. Natty feels that, poor boy, he is touched. However, the day she discovers the truth, she runs away and goes into hiding. Bea, insatiably curious, takes over as housemaid, and tries to discover the ties between the Stevens and the recently arrived Nortons, a father and daughter whom she thinks may be blackmailing Henry Stevens. The plot is twined together like the multitudinous threads making up the cross-Atlantic telegraph cable (which plays a big part in the blackmail scheme). In addition to the very human elements of jealousy and revenge there are supernatural elements at play. In fact, one of the most important facts about our characters is only revealed halfway through, and came as an utter surprise to me. I don't often find that a fact in a mystery story surprises me, unless it comes out of left field and has not been set up for us to see; I usually figure it out early on. But this one shocked me, even though after I read it I could see it was perfectly supported beforehand. Very clever! And it really makes me want to continue with the series. The plot makes great use of Morse code, and as such has a table of the Morse alphabet preceding the story. I found myself flipping to it a few times to try to figure out plot points before they were revealed.

Bea, along with Mildred, and their young cousin Jean (gifted with the second sight, this is Newfoundland after all) investigate and eventually come to discover the whole truth. It is a meticulously plotted story which is difficult to tease out into its separate strands, as everything is nicely meshed. Mildred saves the day and she and Bea bring the villain to justice. Throughout, however, there are discussions of the role that Newfoundland took in trans-Atlantic telegraphy (Marconi and Telegraph Hill appear in a roundabout way), family fishing, the landscape of St. John's and surrounding area as well as the commercial centre of the town. I think I enjoyed this book because it wasn't a dark and dreary family saga about fishermen and isolation and the degradation that women suffered, etc. -- even though it was about darker themes, it was done in a lighter cozy mystery way. I do have a couple of caveats: the writing is not perfect, at times coming across as quite clunky and expositional. Also, a few of the actions the main characters take slide awfully close to cliché. However, I see this as a series with potential, as it is creative and has nicely drawn leading characters (Bea, Mildred, Jean and their varied friends and relatives). It has a unique approach, featuring Morse Code and telegraphy, and feels very Canadian. I would recommend this to many of the regular mystery readers at our library, though if you prefer the harder-edged Scandinavians this probably isn't the one for you. It was a good read for a busy week!

1 comment:

  1. Given that it is the first in a series, one must assume that the writer is still in the fairly early stages of developing her craft. I hope you will keep us posted as to the subsequent books in the series and let us know if the writing improves.


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