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Except the Dying    by Maureen Jennings order for
Except the Dying
by Maureen Jennings
Order:  USA  Can
Harper, 1999 (1997)
Hardcover, Paperback

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* * *   Reviewed by G. Hall

Except the Dying is the first in a well-written new historical mystery series by Canadian author Maureen Jennings. While many mystery writers eventually develop all the skills needed in plotting, characterization and creating settings, Jennings already displays these abilities in this exceptional debut novel. So it was not suprising that it was nominated for an Anthony for Best First Mystery.

The book is set in 1890's Toronto, vastly different from today's lively, cosmopolitan city. In 1895, Toronto was just recovering from hard economic times and full of strong class and ethnic divisions. The murder victim is young French-Canadian Thérèse Laporte, discovered frozen to death in the wintry streets at the novel's beginning. Detective William Murdoch is in charge of the investigation and soon discovers that her death is more than the simple mishap of a poor pregnant maid who has run away from the affluent house where she was employed.

Except the Dying shows slices of life in the different classes of turn of the century Toronto, from the privileged homes of doctors and businessmen, to the tough lives of young boys selling newspapers and living on the streets, to prostitutes eking out a living (most people are definitely not living quaint lives in picturesque earlier days). It also shows a time when those with English and Protestant backgrounds ruled and everyone else was considered inferior.

Even Murdoch, a Roman Catholic, is considered slightly questionable. Murdoch is a well-drawn and appealing character. A bachelor, still mourning the loss of his fiancée to typhoid two years earlier, he is trying to move on with life and takes ballroom dancing in an attempt to meet new young women. He also struggles with the bureaucracy of the police force and a contemptuous and incompetent superior.

As Murdoch investigates Thérèse's murder he discovers that the household of Dr. Rhodes (where she worked) is full of secrets. Shortly after the first death, a prostitute (who lived in the street where Thérèse's body was found and may have been a witness) is also murdered. Murdoch must unravel a complex series of relationships to solve the mystery. He is aided by several nicely developed helpers including his landlord, a local butcher and an old friend from his days as a logger, who is now the steward in a fancy men's club.

While the plot is a bit complex, all the loose ends are eventually tied together into a very rewarding tale. In addition there is the promise of romance for the lonely Murdoch. Though I read many mysteries, I found myself unusually drawn to this book, thinking about it and wanting to get back to it when busy with other activities. Fortunately Jennings has now written Under the Dragon's Tail, so there is another one to read.

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