Sunday, June 27, 2010

Review: Under The Dragon's Tail by Maureen Jennings

Under the Dragon's Tail (Detective Murdoch, Book 2)
by Maureen Jennings
1998 St. Martin's Press
Hardcover Edition; 243 Pages
ISBN: 0-312-19348-3
Genre: Mystery
Source: Local Library

3.5 / 5 Stars

Dolly Merishaw is a midwife and an abortionist, who in both instances carries out her craft in secrecy.  To her come every level of the city's women, either to rid themselves of their unwanted pregnancies or to give birth to the children who for one reason or another they cannot acknowledge.  Her clients include dancehall girls and the wives of the city's leaders, and she regards them all with the same mixture of contempt and greed.

Dolly is a slut and a drunkard.  She is cruel to the two small boys who live with her and her deaf and mute daughter.  If the opportunity presents itself, she's not above  a clumsy effort at blackmail.  When she is found beaten to death, readers once again meet William Murdoch, the eminently likable police detective.  We step into the fullness of life he leads beyond his very competent police work.

My Thoughts
Like Maureen Jennings first novel, Except the Dying, I found Under the Dragon's Tail to be a very enjoyable read of 19th century Toronto and the life of its citizens.  Like anyone who is passionately interested in history, I am really enjoying these glimpses of the past into a place close to where I grew up.  As I've mentioned before, these books have set me on a new course in my study of history and I have developed a new passion for learning about my own past rather than just the history of Europe which has always been my great historical passion.  I have since spent many hours reading websites full of interesting historical facts about Toronto.

Once again, Ms. Jennings has created a cast of believable characters.  I simply adore William Murdoch as the police detective; he is someone who has lost his fiance in a typhoid epidemic and is incredibly lonely.  He engages in dancing lessons in the hopes of meeting suitable young ladies and his encounters with other ladies is simply brilliant.  As a detective, he sometimes reminds me of Pitt from the Anne Perry series, another characters whom I love.  Murdoch is respectful, but doesn't bow down before the gentry in order to ask the necessary questions. 

The descriptions of Toronto during these days are simply amazing, from the characters to the actual descriptions of life itself.  Sometimes it is difficult to take as we remember how difficult it was for immigrants to find jobs and the stories of children and adults starving in the streets is heartbreaking.  Dolly, the murdered woman, was a despicable woman, and my heart just went out to the people who lived under her roof and had to deal with her drunkenness and her terrible behaviour towards them.  And to think there was no social justice system at this time to help children in these situations must have made their lives absolutely miserable.  It made the contrast towards the gentry that much sharper and I'm not if that just happened or if it was intentional by the author.  Although I felt sympathy for Mrs. Pedlow, I certainly didn't like her as she had everything going for her and everything to lose if her secret was ever found out.

Despite all this, one of the reasons I gave this novel three and a half stars out of five, is the mystery itself was predictable and I figured it out pretty quickly.  TAlthough I guessed the whodunit, one of the reasons for why the person did it, I didn't guess at, so that was fairly interesting.  The actual police investigative work kind of took a backseat to a lot of the social events in this novel rather than focus on the murder/mystery.  But there are so many other things going on, that I still found it interesting and enjoyable.

Under the Dragon's Tail is an interesting tale of life in 19th century Toronto.    From ballrooms, to dancehalls, to mansions, to bike races, and a mystery involving a dead midwife/abortionist, there is plenty in this novel to keep a reader interested.  Despite a somewhat weaker mystery, I still found the novel engaging and there was a range of quirky characters that I found truly fascinating.  I am definitely looking forward to reading the next few novels in this engaging series.