Friday, April 08, 2016

DELIVERING THE TRUTH, Edith Maxwell, A Clever Mystery With Insight

Quaker life, and the tender mysteries of childbirth: In DELIVERING THE TRUTH, Massachusetts author Edith Maxwell selects two areas that are intensely private, and in that choice she promises us secrets ... secrets to witness, to explore, and to reveal the human failings that lead to crime.

There have been other Quaker mysteries, of course, but Maxwell sets her new series (she has three others already spinning!) in the 1880s in the close-knit and prosperous town of Amesbury, Massachusetts, where several businesses manufacture carriages. Those complicated creations -- wheels, springs, issues of comfort for traveler and horse, and above all, stylish decor -- fuel the town's growth and keep its families well fed. So when sudden flames destroys a large carriage factory, also killing a dozen men trapped there, it's hard to find anyone untouched by the disaster.

Midwife Rose Carroll, slowly growing her one-woman business with integrity, medical care for mother and baby, and wisdom gained day by day, collides with this wave of grief and loss at a painful level. Although her own small family -- the brother-in-law and nieces and nephews, whose home includes an office that she uses for her midwifery, as she also assists with her dead sister's children -- takes no direct hit from the fire, their closest friends lose work and even loved ones. And Rose herself is still hurting from her own sister's recent death.

Almost immediately, Rose realizes she has observations that may assist the investigation into what's soon declared arson. She's seen a possible suspect right before the fire; she knows, because of her woman-centered work, at least one of the illicit ties in town that involve married men; and soon the police are even asking her to quietly seek answers and report to them on the inner workings of family in the town.

And it's not just her midwifery that makes her a candidate for a careful and observant sleuth: It's also her religious identity as a Quaker -- one of the Society of Friends -- where integrity matters as much as a willingness to wait for divine direction and guidance, and where silence is more common than gossip.

Maxwell's mystery has the hallmarks of a classic in historical fiction, and the softer side of crime investigation that is braided along with such a setting. As in many a "cozy," when death arrives, it does so discreetly, without graphic gore or agony, other than the emotional forces of grief, envy, despair -- the aspects that are seen via the insight and "Light" for which Rose Carroll wishes to be known. But to her shock, one of the deaths in this small-town catastrophe is linked to an item from her own bag that she carries to births: an item shown to her with dried blood on it.
"Is that your knitting needle, Rose Carroll?"

"Yes. It's one of a pair my mother painted for me as a birthday present." I closed my mouth and sat with my hands clenched in my lap. This was the murder weapon ... This was too awful to contemplate. But I had to. I forced myself to unclench my hands.

Kevin regarding me say in silence, as well. I'd read of this tactic in a serial novel, this silent treatment that was usually effective to prod guilty parties to talk. But I was a Quaker. I'd had a lifetime of sitting in silence. And I was guilty of nothing.
Rose's ability to sustain silence, along with her stiff backbone and refusal to bend away from the teachings of her religion, make her a prickly character. She's being courted by a doctor, and open to the courting, although the religious difference involved is rapidly becoming an issue. She's tough, and resolute, and clever.

All of this makes her sleuthing effective and often, for her, very painful emotionally. The cost of looking with clear eyes at the failings of others is high. And her self-judgment is at least as painful.

So DELIVERING THE TRUTH doesn't have the sweet side that many a cozy provides. Moving steadily from one clue to the next, one hypothesis to another, and seeking advice from Quaker leader and noted poet John Greenleaf Whittier, as well as from an older midwife who'd trained her, Rose epitomizes the calm and unyielding focus of, say, Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot, but with more personal cost and risk.

Maxwell has already shown her skill in building series characters and confrontations, so that her Local Foods series is deepening nicely and her Country Store mysteries provide another lively and warm community; DELIVERING THE TRUTH is subtitled "A Quaker Midwife Mystery" but also is signaled on her website as a "Carriagetown Mystery." So that makes three strong reasons to pick up a copy of this new mystery, released today in bookstores and online: (1) for the intrigue of learning about life within the 1880s Quaker community (Maxwell herself is also a member of the Society of Friends, in a nearby town); (2) for the persistent sense of awe and discovery and human risk that midwife stories by their nature enfold; and (3) to be able to follow this series in its debut and growth.

From the profound magic of childbirth to the personal horror of discovering a death and a killer, midwife Rose Carroll offers a clear-eyed gaze at the complicated lives we sustain. I think this is going to be a series that's both clever and insightful -- and DELIVERING THE TRUTH is a strong and enjoyable start.

[From mystery specialty publisher Midnight Ink.]

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