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by Barry Maitland
Minotaur Books, October 2009
334 pages
ISBN: 0312383991

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

This tenth case for Kathy Kolla and her boss, David Brock begins in the London Library (not to be confused with the British Library), a private, somewhat anachronistic, collection in Piccadilly on St James's Square. A graduate student, Marion Summers, returns from her al fresco lunch to collapse and quite quickly die in the library's reading room. Everything points to arsenic poisoning.

Now if this were the 19th century, the event would be tragic, but not altogether surprising, as arsenic was the go-to poison of choice in the Victorian era, readily to hand in all sorts of preparations useful for killing vermin, insects, and in the treatment of various medical conditions. But this is the 21st century and one can hardly drop into the nearest pharmacy for a prescription. Deliberate arsenic poisoning is virtually unheard of today.

As Kathy investigates the victim more closely, she discovers further mysteries. The young woman turns out to be living in a posh house she apparently owns, the existence of which she has kept a secret from everyone, including her family. Where did Marion find the money for such a home and why the secrecy? Nevertheless, no clear motive for her murder emerges and the question of suicide is raised, especially as Marion has been passionately engaged in research into the circle surrounding Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the pre-Raphaelites, who were touched by arsenic in various ways. Could her death be the fruit of an unhealthy obsession with an not altogether healthy group of long-dead artists?

As their investigation proceeds, Kolla and Brock find the case growing murkier and murkier, with more and more possibilities but no convincing explanation. A further complication ensues when Brock's lover Suzanne discovers her connection to some of those involved.

Although DARK MIRROR provides many of the pleasures of earlier entries in the series, especially in Maitland's loving and evocative description of a particular London locale, in this case, the London Library and its environs, there is something ever so slightly old-fashioned about the proceedings. Part of it probably is a function of the poisoning plot and the relatively closed world of academic research. There is the library setting, a library that evidently lacks an electronic catalogue and that represents the fast disappearing days of serendipitous research conducted not on line but on site. But some of it has to do with the investigation itself. Brock and Kolla do not quite seem to be contemporary London police, especially representatives of the Serious Crime Unit at Scotland Yard, which appears to be curiously devoid of all the technological paraphernalia we have come to associate with modern police work. And part has to do with the trickiness of the plot, puzzle- rather than character-driven as it is.

Nevertheless, Maitland does entertain and one can spend one's time in far less satisfying ways than in the company of David Brock and Kathy Kolla. Readers who have been following this series all along will certainly want to check in on the pair; those new to it might perhaps want to start with an earlier novel to see why they have developed so strong a following over the years.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, October 2009

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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