RogerBW's Blog

The Bilbao Looking Glass, Charlotte MacLeod 29 May 2016

1983, cozy American detective fiction; fourth of MacLeod's novels of Boston Brahmin Sarah Kelling and art investigator Max Bittersohn. Sarah and Max, teetering on the brink of getting engaged, visit Sarah's summer home on Cape Cod. But someone has covertly added a valuable antique mirror to the furnishings; and a nasty old gossip turns up with an axe in her chest.

The real theme of the book, though, beyond Sarah and Max's courtship, is the casual antisemitism of the "yacht club set" with which she and her late husband used to be vaguely associated. Even before the crime is noticed, all fingers are pointed at the Jew, though the absence of anyone else who isn't "one of us" may also be a factor.

This is a book in which people are called things like Appie and Miffy and Vare and Lassie, but to the reader used to the outlandish names used in some fantasy that should present no major challenge. And to the reader used to solving mysteries, the plot won't present much challenge either: while the evidence is pleasingly ambiguous, the narrative is rather too careful about where it doesn't point the finger until the dénouement.

"Her getting murdered doesn't make Alice B. any more amiable. It simply removes her as an active menace."

The comedy is applied with both a light and a heavy hand: the subtle stuff works well, but the way people are always bursting in on Sarah and Max just as they're about to settle down for a quiet canoodle is repetitive and becomes dull.

"I really don't think I'm cut out for success as a femme fatale. There's always too darn much else going on. Would you mind terribly if we slipped off quietly and got married instead?"

On the other hand, Sarah's cousin Lionel, his wife, and his four ungovernable children seem as though they're there for slapstick, but turn out to be significant to the plot.

"They've been brought up on freedom of expression. Translated, that means Lionel hasn't the guts to be as vicious as he'd like to be, so he's trained the boys to act out his hostilities for him."

It's not all the horrible New England Yankees, either: Max's family show up for the first time, and are also distinctly edgy about their son "marrying out", though they're more prepared to accept the inevitable. For a light mystery, there's a surprising depth here.

Followed by The Convivial Codfish.

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