Tuesday, March 10, 2015

THE CONNICLE CURSE, Gregory Harris (Colin Pendragon Mystery #3)

When a "noted detective" in a Victorian setting arrives with a sidekick who is male and admiring, it's easy to assume a Sherlock Holmes and Watson pastiche is underway. Whether that's what Gregory Harris intended with The Arnafour Affair and The Bellingham Bloodbath, I'll have to leave up to him -- but the third in the series, THE CONNICLE CURSE, is much too enjoyable and unusual to be pigeonholed so simply.

Athletic and determined Colin Pendragon and his more fragile partner, Ethan Pruitt, have made the English news with their crime-solving, so that Annabelle Connicle swiftly hires their services to solve the presumed murder of her missing husband. Colin's connections through his politically powerful father -- who doesn't appear in this book but whose effect is impressive -- enable him to challenge a handful of sneering Scotland Yard officers to investigate the case. And soon a body is indeed identified as Mr. Connicle's, and there are more to follow.

But Scotland Yard may have been a bit hasty, and although Colin points out the mistakes that the "professionals" and their coroner keep accumulating, Sergeant Evans and Inspector Varcoe aren't happy to accept corrections. What a pity ... because the case keeps getting more tangled, as the Yard men continue to misinterpret and to accept "common knowledge," quickly blaming the crimes on the strangers in the scene: an African couple hired by the Connicles and fully scorned by the wealthy and rather immoral neighbors on scene.

The plot thickens, and incorporating a street youngster willing to follow villains for a living adds a dash of diversity and delight to the investigations -- in fact, since Colin and Ethan are suddenly involved in two cases at once, it's handy to have a helper who doesn't mind dirty work or evading the law, as long as he gets paid for information achieved. "Our Paul is turning out to be quite an entrepreneur," Colin Pendragon gloats cheerfully. But Ethan, our narrator, is not sure that's a good thing. He's identified far more closely with the orphan, and the shadows of his own past keep getting called up, in spite of Pendragon's efforts to protect him.

And here is where this enjoyable traditional mystery (follow the money and cherchez la femme) crosses into fresh terrain: Colin once rescued Ethan from dire straits, involving mental illness, drugs, and more. And the two are, in the most tender and domestic way, lovers as well as crime-solving partners, unsuccessfully trying to avoid having their relationship noticed by the Yard's tough men. Harris spins the story deftly around this unusual focal point, and when it's time to resolve the tragedies that Mrs. Connicle is enduring, Colin's persistence on the case is strongly influenced by the pain he's seen Ethan face.

I enjoyed THE CONNICLE CURSE very much -- take two bundles of Agatha Christie and update with a shake of very British humor and a sauce of affection, and you've got the feel of it quite well. Moreover, I was delighted to find in the final chapter that there's another Colin Pendragon investigation in the wings via Kensington Books: The Dalwich Desecration. Shelve these with mysteries that are friendly, warm, and cleverly twisted in plot, while avoiding gore or dramatic abuse -- in other words, put them on the "read it now and read it again later to relax" shelf. That's what I'll do with mine.

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