Welcome to Murder by the Book's blog about what we've read recently. You can find our website at www.mbtb.com.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Dark Mirror, by Barry Maitland (hardcover, $24.99)

Dark Mirror is the latest David Brock/Kathy Kolla mystery. In this long-running series, the first of which, The Marx Sisters, was a stunner, Barry Maitland has admirably developed the characters of DCI Brock and DI Kolla of The Serious Crimes Unit of Scotland Yard. Maitland has given Brock and Kolla depth and human strengths and weaknesses to which most people can relate.

Maitland's mysteries, on the other hand, often bend towards the esoteric and intellectual. I am often reminded, strangely enough, of Agatha Christie, who sometimes would solve her mysteries with a solution plucked out of left field. (Remember her famous solution of German measles?) The resolutions, needless to say, are hard for the reader to puzzle out.

In Dark Mirror, an attractive graduate student dies of arsenic poisoning in the reading room of an exclusive academic library. She had been tangentially working on poisons and their influence on pre-Raphaelite society. Everyone who already knows about this topic, raise your hand! Ahh, so you might benefit, educationally speaking, from reading the discourse on how the upper-class artistic society of William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti operated.

She appeared to be a committed academic with a quiet life, so the victim, Marion Summers, proves an unlikely mystery woman. However, as more of her life is uncovered, links to unsavory characters pop up. And how was she, on a student's stipend, able to afford the three quarters of a million pound house registered in her name?

The tangle of characters from high and low classes, academia, and Brock and Kolla's personal lives should have provided more of a zip to the story, but the only real pep is provided by Pip, the replacement ingénue character for Kathy Kolla, who has aged and been promoted out of her original helper monkey position. The new romance for Kolla also briefly engages us in something other than the author's careful stage setting for the solution to Marion's murder.

This is, nevertheless, a well-written book, just a little given to plodding and exaggeration.

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