Saturday, June 5, 2010

Review: Except the Dying by Maureen Jennings

Except the Dying (Murdoch Mysteries, Book 1)
2010 McClelland & Stewart
(originally published 1997 St. Martin's Press)
Softcover Edition; 351 Pages
ISBN: 978-0-7710-4331-4
Genre: Murder Mystery
Source: Local Library

This novel was a finalist for both the Anthony and the Arthur Ellis Awards for Best Novel.

4.5 / 5 Stars

Step back in time, to the particularly cold winter of 1895 and to the deserted Toronto laneway where the naked, frozen body of a young woman has been found by the police.  Detective William Murdoch takes on the case and soon discovers that many of those connected to the simple servant girl's life have secrets to hide.  The biggest suprise of all comes with the revelation that the girl is pregnant - and drugged with opium - when she died.

Murdoch's investigation takes him from the brothels to the drawing rooms of this intensely class-conscious society as he unravels the tangled clues to Therese's needless death.

My Thoughts
I am always one to promote Canadian literature, both in my own reading and to my students, and for me this was a real treat to find.  And that the setting takes place in Toronto in 1895 was also a huge draw for me as I am ashamed to admit I know a lot more about the histories of places like London, New York, Paris, Praque, and so on, than I know of my own back door.  As I read, I was constantly going, "That actually happened in Toronto?" which of course sent me running to my Internet to check up on some historical facts and what I learned really astounded me.  I will never take Toronto and surrounding areas for granted again and I have developed a new historical interest, not really something I needed in an extremely busy life, but there it is.

The plot itself was anything but predictable.  I spent a lot of time trying to figure out whodunit, and just as soon as I thought I had it all figured out, everything got turned around on me towards the end, and I was left trying to figure out how I missed the important clues.  It's not too often that that happens to me so I was pleasantly surprised.  Agatha Christie is one of those authors who could continuously do that to me too.  There were definitely a lot of surprises, many twists and turns, and Ms. Jennings certainly has a gift of telling it like it was in 1895; there were some people who certainly had some difficult times here in Toronto during that time period and I felt a lot of sympathy for many people she described as well as the conditions in which they lived.

The characters and their development were a great strength of this novel.  Ms. Jennings certainly has a knack for getting you to feel deeply about the characters she introduces in her novel and allowing you to see into the worlds in which they live.  Even the characters whom I disliked, I still felt some pity for them and their circumstances.  I think what surprised me the most is how little I know about the history of my own province and I consider myself a history buff.  I am grateful for authors like Maureen Jennings who introduce us to the history of our own heritage and encourage us to learn more about our own country.  But I digress, and going back to the wonderful characters in this novel, it truly amazes me how far we have comes in a century.  What hardships people encountered just over one hundred years ago.  Even the descriptions of the medical school and what students were expected to learn was absolutely fascinating.  If you think about it, even fingerprinting was something that even the New York Police Department was just beginning to use as an indentification process and had not even been tried in Canada at this point, as Ms. Jennings points out in her novel.

Except the Dying was a clever, wonderful whodunit with a cast of wonderful new characters.  I am looking forward to reading the other six books that have been published in this series and learning more about Toronto's own unique heritage.


  1. Thanks so much for reminding me about this series. It's been out for a while and at one point several years ago, I meant to read it. You wrote a great review. I'll have to make a note of it and see if I can find it at my library.

  2. I hope you enjoy all your books this week. I really like Sugar Queen and the author's first book, Garden Spells.