RogerBW's Blog

The Balloon Man, Charlotte MacLeod 22 January 2020

1998 cozy American detective fiction; twelfth and last of MacLeod's novels of Boston Brahmin Sarah Kelling and art investigator Max Bittersohn. A family wedding is complicated by the return of jewels long thought lost, an unexpected balloon landing… and a dead body.

Like most of MacLeod's late novels, this one harks back to her very early ones; the theme, and it's stated repeatedly with a heavy hand, is that Sarah did sometimes quite like her first husband (even if he was much older than her, not really interested in her as a person, and utterly under the thumb of his mother) and Max doesn't feel comfortable about this. It's a bit late in the day to bring up an idea like that; in these last novels I sometimes think that MacLeod noticed how much she'd drifted away from her early mysteries with comic characters into comedy novels with incidental mystery.

There's also an annoying three-year-old boy who doesn't seem to me to add much to the proceedings, though some people think he's wonderful, and some shenanigans involving Max being abandoned on a patch of rock some distance out into the Atlantic that just don't, in retrospect, make any sense at all. And an "industrial-grade" smoke bomb that blacks out an entire country house and some area around it for thirty minutes or more.

It's OK, but the strings definitely show when sensible people do stupid things because the plot needs them to. Much more one to read to meet old characters for one last time than as a mystery.

So that's Charlotte MacLeod. (Well, I've found a short story collection I haven't yet read, but it's all the novels.) This was the last thing she had published; she had Alzheimer's for some years, and died in 2005. I'm inclined to split her work into three periods: the first few books which were trying to be serious mysteries with unpleasant people in the manner of Christianna Brand or P. D. James, the middle period in which she was mostly writing comedy, and the last three or four in which she tries to return to her roots. I think I was put on to MacLeod by a Goodreads comment implying she was a fairly serious mystery writer, so I was rather disconcerted by the comedy that was the main body of her work. All in all: quite fun, but probably not worth the effort of seeking out.

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  1. Posted by John Dallman at 04:01pm on 22 January 2020

    Ah, clearly there is another female writer of light-hearted mysteries with the surname MacLeod, and whom I though had a forename beginning with C. I met her at a Bradford Eastercon (more recently than 2005), and thought she must be the same one as you've been reviewing. I wonder who it is?

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 04:05pm on 22 January 2020

    Fantastic Fiction includes Cynthia MacLeod, but her books don't sound light-hearted.

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