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Mute Witness    by Charles O'Brien order for
Mute Witness
by Charles O'Brien
Order:  USA  Can
Poisoned Pen, 2002 (2002)

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* *   Reviewed by G. Hall

Charles O'Brien brings late 18th century Paris to life in a well-done first mystery. In the last few years historical mysteries have become very popular and there is a mystery for almost every interesting time in history. However, O'Brien's book stands out in the increasingly crowded field and indeed was nominated for an Agatha for Best First Mystery last year.

O'Brien, a historian, brings the 1785-86 time period to life. Both the aristocracy, at their decadent height right before the French Revolution, and the poorer people are vividly portrayed. One expects an historian to get the details correct, and the setting and time do feel accurate. However, not all mystery writers can avoid the temptation to put too much of what they know in the book and overwhelm and bore the reader. O'Brien avoids this nicely. Mute Witness features young Englishwoman Anne Cartier, the daughter of French parents who had emigrated to England. She is raised by her performer step-father Antoine Dubois after her mother dies, and he teaches her gymnastics and acting. Anne is very capable of taking care of herself after Antoine returns to France. She works for a while at Sadler Wells and then moves to the country, where she is employed at an institute for deaf children.

But then she learns from visiting French policeman Colonel Paul St. Martin that Antoine has died a suicide after supposedly killing his actress girlfriend and then throwing himself from the theater balcony. St. Martin is acting unofficially, having been sent by his aunt at whose house the Dubois worked as entertainers during the summers when Anne was a child. His aunt, who formed a close attachment to the whole family, asked St. Martin to visit Anne while on business in England, to break the news. Of course, Anne cannot believe that her beloved Antoine committed murder and she accompanies St. Martin to France. She justifies the trip as a fact-finding visit to a famous French clergyman who has founded a school for the deaf and is teaching them sign language (this is a real innovation since the deaf were previously considered simple-minded.)

Anne and St. Martin are joined in their sleuthing by St. Martin's aide Georges Charpentier and by Mischou, a deaf-mute young woman. Mischou, the mute witness of the title, worked as a seamstress at the theater where Antoine died. Using what she has learned working with the deaf, Anne is soon able to communicate with her. In their investigation they uncover shady dealings at the theater and eventually Anne and Mischou end up in great danger. The plot is complex, maybe unnecessarily so, but the book is well-worth reading. Anne is a captivating sleuth who uses her physical abilities to maneuver out of tight spots and her acting skills to construct clever disguises.

O'Brien's second book, Black Gold, is set in Bath, England where Anne has returned after the mystery is solved. Fortunately her detecting team follows her there for further adventures, and (we hope) for development of the budding romance between Anne and St. Martin.

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