RogerBW's Blog

The Withdrawing Room, Charlotte MacLeod 22 October 2015

1981, cozy American detective fiction; second of MacLeod's novels of Sarah Kelling and Max Bittersohn. While the family affairs get straightened out, the recently-widowed Sarah needs an income; she remodels her house to take in boarders. But one of them falls under a subway train, or maybe he was pushed…

So far MacLeod's books have often been more about quirky characters than about the nominal mystery, and this one continues the trend. In fact the characters are the better part of this book: Mariposa and Charles, who play the role of domestic staff (Charles is a resting actor who wants to get a feel for the part of a traditional English butler); Mrs Sorpende, a widow with a dark secret; Mary Smith, the near-homeless rubbish picker. And the others:

"Dear little Sarah! You grow more like your Aunt Marguerite every day."

Sarah winced. One Marguerite in the world was already one too many for her. However, since there was no blood relationship there was little likelihood of resemblance. Miss Hartler must either be hallucinating or trying to pay a compliment. One might as well take the more charitable view.

Unfortunately this means that the nominal mystery suffers by comparison; everyone assumes it was an accident, even if there was a new tenant who'd already inquired about taking the particular room the victim was occupying and is happy to move into it afterwards, and only one witness statement (ignored by the police) points in any other direction. Sarah, the viewpoint character, was unusually flat in the last book; here she's put-upon and snappish, and still not terribly sympathetic. Max Bittersohn is clearly being set up to be her partner, both investigative and romantic, but he's barely on-stage this time, just providing a bit of support when it's needed then and going away to conduct large chunks of the investigation that we never hear about in detail.

It's all right, but not really compelling reading. Followed by The Palace Guard.

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