"Dark Mirror" by Barry Maitland
Minotaur, 329 pp., $24.99
Reviewed by David Marshall James
Detective novels don't get much better than "Dark Mirror," the latest police-procedural drawn from the ranks of New Scotland Yard, by Australian author Barry Maitland (originally from Scotland and longtime resident of London, where the action transpires).
This is the tenth in his Brock & Kolla (an older and wiser, father-figure inspector [David Brock] and his fast up-and-coming subordinate [Kathy Kolla] at The Yard) series. However, it matters not if this is where one chooses to dive into the Maitland oeuvre, as the novels stand alone nicely. (See review of Maitland's third Brock & Kolla, "All My Enemies," on this blog.)
"Dark Mirror" is completely taken up with, sans subplots, Kathy Kolla's first case following her promotion to Detective Inspector, and it's almost dismissed as a bizarre, attention-grabbing suicide.
Marion Summers, a come-hither redhead, convulses and dies when she is somehow poisoned during the partaking of her usual sack lunch in St. James Square, just outside the library where she's been researching her doctoral dissertation.
Her study has been intensely focused on the Pre-Raphaelite writers and artists, and she is scheduled to present her academically explosive findings at Cornell University (Ithaca, New York).
Kolla soon learns that the beautiful, intelligent Marion is possessed of a shockingly vulgar family, including a shrill, drunken mother and a stepfather who will stop at nearly nothing to pick up an extra quid or two. As with many persons who attempt to screen such unattractive elements of their upwardly mobile lives, Marion has compartmentalized and obfuscated the various facets of her life from friends and associates.
Therefore, Kolla must dig deep in order to deconstruct not only the myriad secrets of Marion's life, but also the nature and extent of her research on the Pre-Raphaelites.
Author Maitland's immersion into the world of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Morris brings several historical mysteries to the surface, notably that of the alleged-and-acquitted murderess Madeleine Smith and her subsequent association with Rossetti.
In a series of parallels, of mirror images (the title refers directly to a forensic test for arsenic poisoning, and indirectly to the similarities between past and present), Scotland native Marion Summers could almost pass as the Pre-Raphaelite stunner Madeleine Smith.
The literary aspects of the novel add a high gloss to the proceedings, at the same time underlining the motivations of the victim and several of the suspects in her killing.
Maitland portrays the city of London, however sprawling and sometimes seemingly indifferent, as a false haven to those seeking anonymity. Rather, it emerges as a place filled with voyeurs (of varying degrees), snoops, and those who tend to be unwittingly noticed because of their repeated presence in public locales. Still, it's unwise for prying eyes to become too bold, considering the metropolitan "Eye" of closed-circuit cameras and civilians armed with cell-phone cameras.
This is the sort of story that Alfred Hitchcock would have loved, that he would have given his cinematic "all" if he were alive and in his prime (the reader may picture Kolla somewhere in the neighborhood of early 1950s Doris Day, or late 1950s Debbie Reynolds). Nicole Kidman ought to snap up an option on this book and star herself as Marion Summers. There are also six strong female parts here, including Kolla, who shines nicely (was there ever any doubt?) on the case.
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