The Marx Sisters, by Barry Maitland

Kerrie of Mysteries in Paradise, then Bernadette of Reactions to Reading, encouraged me to try reading a novel by Barry Maitland.  He’s written a series about two police detectives, Brock and Kolla, so I decided to start with the first one, The Marx Sisters (not least because of the intriguing title).

The Marx Sisters focuses on a little pocket of London just north of Tottenham Court Road tube station, in which a few streets form a quaintly Dickensian relief from the modern architectural monstrosities around them.  In this small area, Jerusalem Lane, it is as if time has stood still: there is an old bookshop, a delicatessen, a small solicitor’s office and so on; people have lived in the area for many years and form a tight community of residents who know each other’s names and all about their business, going back to the Second World War when some of them emigrated to the UK. There isn’t a bank or estate agent to be found. The residents of Jerusalem Lane give the area its character – among them the titular sisters, three elderly ladies – one of them, Meredith, a widow, and the others, Eleanor and Peggy, spinsters who live in flats upstairs in Meredith’s house.  One day, the sisters reflect on how the area is changing, as many of the long-time residents are retiring, shutting down their businesses and leaving for the country. Two of them  go out for a regular outing, and when they return, the third has died. Is it a murder or is it a natural death?

Kathy Kolla is the detective sergeant assigned to investigate; and Chief Inspector Brock of Scotland Yard’s Serious Crimes Office, who has just closed a high-profile case, is, for reasons unknown to Kolla, assigned to help her. The two of them, Kolla more energetically than Brock, talk to the pathologist and to the victim’s family and friends – but although plenty of suspects and plausible motives emerge, it is hard to pin down how the old lady died. 

The novel is told in two parts – each part concerning one murder. The second section opens with Kolla being enlightened as to why Brock was assigned to her investigation, and she is not best pleased. However, she and Brock do like each other in an unstated way, and without knowing anything about their subsequent outings, I feel sure something will be going on between them before too long. And what of this particular book? It’s a competent novel – its canvas broadens considerably in part 2 as the reasons for suspicion (there are several distinct ones) and some of the minor characters in part 1 become more fleshed-out, most of them in rather interesting ways, not least historically.  In the end, though, it is Kolla’s short-sighted and to my mind unnecessary dare-devilness that provides one breakthrough, and, believe it or not, another equally (predictably) stupid action on her part that provides the decisive one. I enjoyed the novel, which seems to sit somewhere between being a classic comfortable detective story of the Agatha Christie mould that isn’t quite in the real world as we know it (as if the 1950s have been transposed directly to the 1990s), and being on the verge of something a bit darker and edgier. 

Review first posted at Petrona, June 2010.

This entry was posted in Australasia, Australia, Books, Crime fiction, England, Europe, Police procedural, Series and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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