on 1 October 2009
The latest Brock and Kolla procedural provides a mystifying case involving arsenic poisoning, a relative rarity in the crimes of the day. Kathy Kolla, newly promoted to inspector, is presented with a challenging, if not enigmatic, crime. Marion Summers, a young, brilliant PhD student collapses in the British Library after having just eaten lunch in St. James Park. The pathologist intuitively believes that it is a case of arsenic poisoning [later confirmed] and murder.
Unfortunately, as the investigation proceeds, it soon appears that the victim committed suicide. But Kathy is obsessed and continues to look into Marion's background. Then the latter's friend, another student, is found poisoned, and the case takes yet another turn.
The plot revolves around Marion's research into the Victorian pre-Raphaelite period, in which arsenic was widely available and used for a variety of purposes [unlike today, when it is rare and largely unobtainable]. There are a number of suspects, and the reader is kept on the brink of discovery until the real culprit is unveiled. Maitland is a master in creating suspense, and smoothly moving the story ahead without revealing clues to the reader as he or she twists and turns until a most unexpected conclusion. Recommended.
I've read all of Barry Maitland's Brock and Kathy British police proceduals and have found them all to be well-written and well-researched with good character deliniations. This book, his latest, just doesn't seem quite up to speed. It's a good read, but is slightly too long and could have used some judicious editing. The front story, which takes place today with Brock and Kathy Kolla investigating two poisonings with arsenic, is too overshadowed by the back story, about the pre-Raphaelites and their activities. The plot is almost too much of a "stretch" to be convincing, as are some of the secondary characters.
If you're a Brock/Kolla fan, you'll enjoy the book because he continues the character time line of his main characters and that's always important in a "series" book.
If you haven't read Maitland, I'd start on one of his earlier books.
Marion Summers dies a painful death in the London Library. The autopsy reveals that she died of arsenic poisoning, a method of murder more suited to the murky 19th century world of the Pre-Raphaelite painters & poets she was researching. Detectives Brock & Kolla investigate secretive Marion's background & discover that her research may have been the reason she was killed. Did her discoveries threaten the career of her academic supervisor? Or was it the fellow researcher who had been following her, taking photos on his mobile phone? Or her mysterious lover, who may have been the father of the child she lost just weeks before her death? This is a complex mystery with fascinating literary & historical elements. Brock & Kolla are sympathetic characters & it's always good to catch up with them again.
on 6 April 2015
3 1/2 stars -- (NOTE: no spoilers in this review) For all its contemporary setting, this is an old-fashioned kind of mystery. A murder is committed in a rather unusual way, and it soon becomes clear that a number of people had an interest in silencing the victim. What's unusual is that the victim, Marion Summers, is a graduate student working on the use of poison among the group of late 19th-Century writers and artists known as the Pre-Raphaelites -- a group that included Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Morris, as well as the women with whom both were romantically entangled -- and that the cause of her death was poison. After some preliminary consideration of the possibility of suicide, the recently-promoted DI Kathy Kolla and her boss DCI David Brock get to work on her contacts and on the curiously mysterious life that she seems to have been leading in the few months prior to her death. Readers should be prepared for quite a lot of information about the Pre-Raphaelites, but, with a couple of reservations outlined below, many of the procedural aspects of the story are quite credibly handled. There are a number of red-herrings, made acceptable by being presented as false trails that the detectives find themselves pursuing for what seem at the time to be good reasons, and as in so many detective stories of this kind, we soon learn that, while there is only one solution to the murder investigation, all of the characters who at one time or another fall under suspicion are morally suspect for one reason or another. This fact about the characters, of course, keeps all of them, in the reader's mind, alive as possible perpetrators. There is Marion's director of studies, himself a Rossetti expert; there is Marion's criminal step-father and alcoholic mother; there is a writer for whom Marion does research; a fellow-worker in the library that Marion uses; and so on . . . These characters and others are well-individualized, and their relationships to Marion, and sometimes to one another, are made clear. And Marion's character is also part of the mystery -- is she only a dogged researcher? Or are there things in her past that make credible her attraction to her area of study and the manner in which she conducts her personal and professional relationships? The way the novel handles the question "Who is Marion?" is for me its most interesting and successful aspect.
I have a reservation about the novel's narrative construction, however: both detectives turn out to have personal acquaintances who get tied up in the main story in ways that I didn't find very convincing, and that's important because it is only through them, and through very peripheral characters known to them, that we readers and one of the detectives are given access to information that is critical to the case. That causes the solution to the case to depend on something that seems a bit unlikely or serendipitous, and there comes a point too where some late suspense is generated by the involvement of one of the detectives' acquaintances -- and that seems a little bit too convenient. And I also have to say that the way in which the source of the poison in question is finally discovered verges on the over-ingenious -- although that might bother some readers less than it does me. So . . . all in all, I enjoyed the book (the first of this series that I have read); the detectives are appealing and diligent -- it's just that I thought that in places credibility was sacrificed to maintain suspense.