Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Marx Sisters and The Malcontenta by Barry Maitland

These are the first two of a series. If I can chase down the third and fourth, expect to see review of them pretty soon. They're excellent. The first book was published in 1994, and the eleventh is being released next week. It looks like the second book is out of print. I found mine at a used book store.

The books are densely plotted, clever murder mysteries with two main characters, Detective Sergeant Kathy Kolla of the Metropolitan Police--that's London--and Detective Chief Inspector David Brock of Scotland Yard. Their careers intersect in the first book when Brock is assigned to help Kathy on her first murder investigation. An old woman has died under questionable circumstances--the coroner isn't completely convinced it was foul play, but not completely convinced it was natural causes. Kathy is certain something fishy is going on. She and Brock piece together a profoundly complicated (and thoroughly satisfying) mystery.

The second book takes place about a year after the first. Kathy's been assigned to investigate a suicide at a health spa--but she and the coroner are pretty sure it was murder. But when she's abruptly taken off the case, which is then closed and labeled a suicide, she seeks out Brock for his advice. Again the mystery is complicated and satisfying.

I've seldom come across mysteries--or heck, any books at all--as well plotted as these. I had no idea who the murderer was or why he/she did it. The clues are planted deftly, the red herrings are all important to the overall story, and there are multiple motives. While I enjoyed reading the books and the fairly dark (sometimes claustrophobic) tone is lightened by flashes of low-key humor, they also took some concentration--although I never felt like I was trying to hold a timetable in my head.

The main characters are likable for the most part. They're hard to get to know. It's obvious the two feel some interest in each other, but their relationship moves very, very slowly. I like that. It's a nice change from so many mystery series where the main characters are starting to grope each other before the first chapter's over. I'm really looking forward to seeing how Kathy and Brock interact in the other books.

Like the subtle characterization, the pacing is slow and sometimes bogs down under its own weight. The first book had a lot of lengthy exposition which was mercifully absent in the second; but a big chunk of the first section of the second book is told in flashback as Kathy relates the events of her investigation to Brock, and a big chunk of the second part is Brock investigating on his own, after he checks into the health spa as a patient. I didn't mind the slow pace; it too is a nice change, and enough happens that it kept me interested and reading. I only caught myself skimming toward the end of both books, when I got impatient with having to read lengthy descriptions when urgent stuff was happening.

Murder mysteries in the 90s were big on having themes--usually social issues that the writer addressed as part of the plot. These two books are sort of like that, although I'm not sure Maitland was doing it on purpose or if it just fell out that way. The Marx Sisters seems to have the theme of Infidelity, while The Malcontenta seems to be about Sexism. I didn't notice the themes until the second book, when Kathy's investigation is shut down and she seeks help from Brock, and then I thought back and realized the first book had a theme too. Like I said, Maitland may not have intended these to be themed books, and the themes may very well run throughout the rest of the series. The only reason I really bring it up is because of a few lines in The Malcontenta which really, really bothered me.

Kathy has been explaining the situation to Brock, and here are a few lines of him mulling things over: "[H]e was concerned at her obvious antagonism towards Tanner, Beamish-Newell and Long--all of the main male characters in her account so far, apart from Dowling, whom she seemed to be mothering. He worried whether she was being objective enough in her assessments." (page 53 of my edition) It seems like an odd thing for him to wonder about, particularly under the weird circumstances of the case. And it didn't go anywhere: nothing to do with the main plot, nothing to do with the subplots, no further developments along those lines in Kathy's relationships with male characters in the rest of the book. So basically Brock just shows that despite his affable and polite appearance, he's actually deeply sexist himself and is ready to discount his colleague's account because she's female and can't handle working alongside males. It made me like him a lot less, and also made me hypersensitive to how Maitland, a male author, portrays Kathy, a female character. But Kathy is a believably strong woman, so I'll give Maitland the benefit of the doubt--although Brock had better not start spouting more of that kind of shit in the next few books or I'll drop the series.

Anyway, all that aside, I did really enjoy the books. I'm hoping the next ones are available as ebooks so I can start reading the third one tonight.

B&N link The Marx Sisters
B&N link The Malcontenta (used book)


Kelly Robinson said...

Thought this series looked interesting when it came out, but I forgot about it. Might move it up the list.

K.C. Shaw said...

I think you'd like it. It's certainly a lot better than most mysteries.