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by Rhys Bowen
St Martin's Minotaur, March 2008
304 pages
ISBN: 0312349432

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

It's the seventh Molly Murphy mystery, and stick a fork in me because I'm done. An ambitious plot with several different concurrent mysteries, TELL ME PRETTY MAIDEN can't overcome the problems that grow worse with every Molly story.

Molly's early 1900s Manhattan detective agency is doing quite well. She has been hired for a job particularly suited to her gender: stalking a young man to see if he is a suitable match for a society girl. In addition, Oona Sheehan (a character from the previous book) has recommended Molly to an actress attempting a comeback that is marred by a vicious theater poltergeist who is ruining sets and costumes and endangering the actors. Then there is the mute woman that Molly literally trips over in Central Park. It's an engaging set of puzzles, particularly the last one, for the woman was found wearing clothing inappropriate for the winter weather and there are no tracks in the snow around her suggesting pursuit. What could have terrified her literally out of her wits, and who is she?

The puzzles are interesting. Where it all falls apart is the characterization. Daniel, a once-charming young man, is still suspended from his post with the police. Being unemployed and watching Molly's work take off is bringing out the worst in him. He bullies and whines, making it quite clear that no matter how proud he is of Molly, he expects to marry her and turn her into a dutiful little housewife – hardly endearing himself to the reader or to Molly. She spends a great deal of time complaining that he treats her like a child… but she also dutifully follows his every command. Resentful obedience to orders is an odd, off-putting form of flirting, and I'd rather see them break up than read much more of that.

Also, despite the fact that turn of the century New York had almost 4 million inhabitants, everybody in Molly's world knows everyone else; there aren't even three degrees of separation in this universe. Even the police in the next town over know Daniel, and what seemed like a completely unrelated case ends up tying back to Molly's main mysteries.

But worst of all was Molly herself, who is firmly holding the idiot stick for much of the book. My dislike of the Daniel/Molly relationship is personal, and perhaps not all readers will be unhappy that absolutely everything is interrelated. But there's simply no excuse for Molly not examining the most basic of clues to come her way, overlooking suspects, or hushing someone who is obviously about to give her a vital clue 100 pages before the plot is ready for the reveal. That is sloppy mystery writing in any book.

Reviewed by Linnea Dodson, May 2008

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