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MARX SISTERS
by Barry Maitland
Penguin, June 2000
336 pages
$6.99
ISBN: 0140291768


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Let me pick my nits with this book early and get them out of the way. My complaints, after all, are with the marketing angle, not the substance of the book.

First of all, when a writer chooses to save some information until the book is two-thirds of the way through, the publisher should not give that information away in the blurbs or in the publicity information. In the case of The Marx Sistersit is hardly crucial information, nor does it give anything away, but I read much of the story wondering why Maitland had not mentioned some information that the cover text had offered.

My second minor point is that this referred to as "A Kathy and Brock mystery" and I'm probably being over-sensitive, but that's sexist. Kathy in this case is Detective Sergeant Kathy Kolla; Brock is Detective Chief Inspector David Brock. While the Kolla does often refer to herself as "Kathy", I'd really prefer to see some equity in this header.

That whining aside, this is a very good book. This is Barry Maitland's first mystery. The writer was born in Scotland, raised in London and is now a professor of architecture in Australia. His architect's eye is very informative in this tale of a small street in London, where many events are coming together. A woman is dead, apparently, people are moving away, the area is being developed and these events, while seemingly unrelated, come together.

Three sisters live in a house on Jerusalem Lane; a small, mixed street in London that has much character. It's working class, with a bookshop, a deli, a flower shop. Several of the shops are closing down, and the lane has a strange feel to it. But it was a street I found very interesting and wanted to know.

Meredith Winterbottom is found dead one afternoon, and it's a debate whether it was an accidental death, suicide or murder. DS Kolla is surprised to find herself partnered with high profile DCI Brock, who's gotten his picture in the paper often.

The two cops are very skilled and tactful in dealing with Meredith's surviving sisters; these are, after all, elderly women. No one can name an enemy of Meredith's; she appears mostly well-liked, although somewhat of a busybody on the street. Residents in Jerusalem Lane are a mixed bag of long-time residents, refugees and immigrants. After a fair amount of investigation, however, the police are told not to pursue the case.

Months later, however, something happens to bring Kolla and Brock back to Jerusalem Lane. Much has changed, development having moved forward and Kolla discovers that there was more to Brock's assignment to the case than she first realized. Maitland skillfully weaves the strands of this issue with various points of view and suspects in a murder case.

The police are both professional and good; the relationships shown and the expertise reminded me of such excellent portrayers of British police as Deborah Crombie and Susannah Stacey. The victims are, further, also interesting, something that I've been missing lately in a number of books. Too often, writers of crime fiction seem so focused on the heroes and the villains that they lose sight of the importance of the victims to the reader. If you don't care who died, it will be difficult to care about the solution of the crime. The people aren't all likable, but they all have something to add to the story, and very few of them are from central casting - in fact, sister Peg is quite a fascinating study.

Barry Maitland has accomplished something wonderful in his first mystery: introducing a pair of police you want to get to know better, and a London that is not the traditional setting. Combine that with an excellent sense of history, and this is a very promising start to what I hope is a long writing career.

This book was originally published in 1994

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Editor's Note: The UK editions of the series use Brock and Kolla instead of Kathy and Brock.

Reviewed by Andi Shechter, September 2002

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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