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by Elizabeth Mundy
Constable, February 2018
272 pages
7.99 GBP
ISBN: 147212636X

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

As a rule, the fundamental premise for most mystery series featuring an amateur detective is a shaky one. After all, elderly spinsters, small town librarians, and mystery authors don't generally live the kind of lives that lead them to get mixed up with one violent crime, let alone many. This, then, is one of the fundamental delights of Elizabeth Mundy's debut IN STRANGERS' HOUSES: her protagonist—the plucky and ambitious Lena Szarka—literally goes through other people's dirty laundry for a living.

Lena is a Hungarian cleaner in London, living a version of that all-too-common and none-too-glamorous immigrant experience. Namely, she works exhausting hours at an unskilled, low-paying job while living with multiple roommates and dreaming of the day that she'll finally get a foothold in her adopted home. Add to that the fact that she's an Eastern European in post-Brexit London, forced weather all manner of oblique microagressions and blatant discriminations ("You're Romanian, too, aren't you? You come here to beg"), and you have the perfect of-our-moment set-up that would be compelling even if it weren't for the crime plot.

The crime in question is the disappearance of Lena's younger childhood friend, Timea, who's left her son behind in rural Hungry to try and make a better life for them both in London. So far, however, Timea only has a small room in Lena's apartment and a roster of failed relationships to show for her trouble and has become increasingly secretive and edgy with her well-meaning, but often pushy friend. When Timea goes missing, Lena is sure that the police aren't taking her disappearance seriously, and being the well-organized, Type A go-getter that she is, thinks nothing of jumping right into her own investigation—with occasional help, that is, from PC Cartwright, a young police academy grad who wants to prove to his rough and ready colleagues he's got more than just book smarts and can close cases, too.

Centering on Timea's client list and a former flame who never entirely left the picture, Lena's investigation is often rather pat, with one clue leading, quite conveniently, to another. And while there are a few clever red herrings and dead ends and even some genuine moments of tension—moments which thankfully compel Lena to show some genuine ingenuity in getting herself and her sidekicks out of trouble—the unraveling of the crime itself, while enjoyable, is not actually where this book's primary strengths lie.

Rather, Timea's disappearance forces Lena to reckon with her past, her choices, and her impact on the lives of people she cares about, often to unflattering effect. And she's a very compelling character, flawed in genuine and relatable ways, with a history that she didn't ever manage to put quite as far behind her as she may have once thought. The narrative then moves between past and present, between new acquaintances and old lovers, between fields outside of rural Hungarian villages and the bustling sidewalks of London's Angel and Islington neighborhoods. This journey is always bringing Lena closer to finding out what happened to her friend, perhaps, but more importantly, it's giving her cause to learn some deeper things about herself.

IN STRANGERS' HOUSES is then not only an airing of other people's dirty laundry, but of Lena's (and Timea's) as well. Having doggedly pursued answers in a crime that hits very close to home, it will be interesting to see where the next, possibly less personal, case takes this very compelling leading lady.

§ Larissa Kyzer is an Icelandic-English translator who lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Reviewed by Larissa Kyzer, March 2018

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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