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[697] Dark Mirror – Barry Maitland


Brock & Kolla Mystery #10

” The way Maitland died had felt…what? Bizarre, certainly. Eccentric? That wasn’t quite it. Rather elaborate and clever, with its reference to her studies. Too much so. Like a student prank. It reminded Kathy of those student pranks at school on April Fools’ Day . . . Elaborately staged, spectacular in their effects end at their best—or worst—cruelly matched to their intended victim. ” (Ch.29, p.308)

Marion Summers is a bright PhD student of European literature in London. She’s interested in the women in Pre-Raphaelite period who were exploited and oppressed by men. And morbidly, she takes special interest in arsenic, a heavy metal poison, which was an integral part of oppression because small doses were used deliberately to keep women sickly and docile.

A young, attractive, intelligent woman, apparently doing well, carefully measures out a heavy dose of arsenic trioxide into a bottle of juice and goes off to the library. (Ch.10, p.102)

She collapses and dies in a reading room at the London Library—an outrageous public spectacle. The pathologist attributes the cause to arsenic poisoning. Although initial evidence suggests suicide, it’s highly unlikely. The mystery deepens as nobody, not even her family, knows much about her private life, which she seems to guard deliberately. Her dissertation adviser believes that Marion has assisted an author in obtaining material for her work, by possibly plagiarizing another work, but the author knows little of the source. Nor can this academic tutor be free from suspicion because it’s the idea of Inspector Kathy Kolla that Marion might have discovered something that seriously challenges, or even revolts, his authority in Pre-Raphaelites and Dante Rossetti.

As Kathy Kolla and her superior, David Brock, investigate further into the victim and her associations, they are confronted by more mysteries. The young woman turns out to be living in a posh house she apparently owns, the existence of which she has kept secret from everyone. Nevertheless, no clear motive for her murder emerges and the question of suicide is raised, especially, because reference to her studies is touched by arsenic in various ways. A further complication ensues when it’s discovered that Marion Summers had been pregnant.

Dark Mirror is intricately plotted, filled with many twists and turns. The solution to the murder lies in understanding the woman herself. There’s a stalker, a pompous professor, a secret lover, and a brutish step-father—neither of whom is above suspicion and each has a murderous motive. Although the story is abound with convolutions, Maitland doesn’t confuse. Each character is well-drawn. There is a strong sense of locale—part of the great attraction of this book is the quirky, serendipitous location—The London Library, tucked away quietly in Piccadilly, a subscription-only library renowned for its central role in England’s intellectual life. This is a brilliant mystery, mixed with history, that gets to the heart of the victim. In getting to known her through the pages, one is swept by a breathtaking scheme that calls for her maintaining such control and secrecy over her life.

329 pp. Minotaur Books. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]


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