RogerBW's Blog

A Trouble of Fools, Linda Barnes 26 July 2019

1987 mystery, first in the Carlotta Carlyle series. Carlotta was in the Boston Police, but left for reasons which aren't yet clear; now she's a private eye without clients. Then a nice old lady, worried about what's happened to her brother, offers her a bundle of cash to look into the matter…

I picked this up in the same second-hand bundle as It's Murder, My Son, and found it fascinating to see the difference in the authors' approach to the first book of what's very evidently planned to be a series. As before, there is obvious pipe-laying going on here with the introduction of a number of well-observed characters who are presumably going to recur in future books. But Carlotta isn't undergoing a massive change of lifestyle; she's known these people for a while, so the reader must effectively be introduced to them without provoking a pointless in-character reminiscence. That works here, and I got the sense of coming in to an ongoing situation rather than of everybody having been waiting in the author's head until it was their turn to walk on stage.

There's a solid feeling of Boston here, which reminded me of Margaret Ronald's Spiral Hunt. Lots of people set books in Boston, and even talk about landmarks, but both Barnes and Ronald make the place feel real in a way that even I (having only visited once or twice) can tell comes from a genuine knowledge of and love for the city.

The main case deals with the daftness of NORAID and "Irish sympathisers" who've never even seen the country they claim to love, and makes a solid and subtle point about subversion that I'm going to appropriate for game plots. There's a side plot dealing with a time-share offer that's clearly too good to be true, but finding out how it's too good is a challenge in itself… and an opportunity.

I like Carlotta. She has friends, and allows them to use their talents to help when she's got in over her head. Sure, she has to do a fair bit of walking alone down the mean streets… but if she can arrange to have some backup, she most certainly will.

One might get a sense of Carlotta having been put together from a box of attributes – very tall, ex-cop, redhead, has a cat, crazy artist roommate, adopted "little sister" in the bad part of town – but Barnes manages to slot all those together into an cohesive personality.

The book doesn't coruscate, but it has a quiet excellence that surprised and pleased me. Followed by The Snake Tattoo.

[Buy this at Amazon] and help support the blog.

See also:
Spiral Hunt, Margaret Ronald
It's Murder, My Son, Lauren Carr

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