RogerBW's Blog

The Plain Old Man, Charlotte MacLeod 20 May 2018

1985 cozy American detective fiction; sixth of MacLeod's novels of Boston Brahmin Sarah Kelling and art investigator Max Bittersohn. Sarah's aunt is putting on her annual Gilbert and Sullivan show, but it will be made harder by theft… and perhaps murder.

The last book had rather more Max than Sarah; this one has much more Sarah than Max, with the latter only appearing during the wrapping-up. Again, the narrative suffers when they're kept apart, and thus not allowed to do their double-act of detection.

Like The Grub-and-Stakers Quilt a Bee, the last MacLeod I read, there's really not much puzzle-solving to do here; we get the trappings of a detective story, and a very few clues, but mostly the narrative consists of Sarah's internal monologue, as she carries on being the general dogsbody for the production (one night only!) while trying to find out what's going on with a missing painting and doing some minor investigation of a suspicious death. One might say from this narrative "ah, I think it's probably X" but there's certainly no definitive set of clues that would eliminate everyone else.

By inheritance or pillage, Mabel had acquired a great deal of furniture. Unlike Emma, Mabel did not keep the overflow in her cellar. She preferred, as she often said, to enjoy her treasures. What enjoyment Mabel derived from three hatstands with hangers made of real deer hooves, three worsted-worked love seats, and a large bronze statue of Atlas carrying an illuminated globe on his shoulders and having his private parts discreetly dealt with by means of a barometer set into his lower abdomen was a mystery not even Max Bittersohn would have cared to tackle. And that was just the foyer.

The really effective thing here is the portrayal of Aunt Emma, who's been the driving force of the performing society for years, but who has the grace to know when it's time to retire from singing and directing. Even if she still knows how to scare up a replacement Notary (for The Sorcerer) at short notice:

"By the way, Frederick Kelling, I hope you haven't forgotten who got you off the hook that time you got drunk on bathtub gin and wound up engaged to Cousin Mabel."

"For God's sake, Emma! That was in June of 1929."

"It was 1928. And the statute of limitations hasn't run out as far as I'm concerned. Frederick, you owe me."

Apart from her it's another palate-cleanser: nothing objectionable, but also nothing startling or unexpected (though it's shot through with phrases from Gilbert and Sullivan, which works pretty well). Followed by The Recycled Citizen.

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Previous in series: The Convivial Codfish | Series: Sarah Kelling and Max Bittersohn | Next in series: The Recycled Citizen

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