“Peggy Blair Weaves Page-Turning Thrillers”

Peggy Blair weaves page-turning thrillers

The Chronicle-Journal – Sunday, February 17, 2013

By Julio Gomes

Mystery thrillers may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but like a lot of genres one can be tempted to give it a whirl when an exceptional talent comes along. Penguin Canada has just released the second in a series centered on Cuban police officer Inspector Ricardo Ramirez, and on the evidence of the works, its author, Ottawa-based Peggy Blair, is clearly an engaging crime novelist,

Last year’s debut sets the tone for a style that includes rapid plot developments and unexpected twists, with a dollop of social conscience thrown in for good measure.

The Beggar’s Opera (Penguin Canada, $13.50 mass market paperback, 467 pages) opens at Christmastime in humid Havana. The body of a Cuban street urchin turns up near the seawall. Suspicion falls on a Canadian police officer, who is on vacation trying to patch up his failing marriage and haunted by a traumatic incident that left his partner dead and his own face disfigured.

As the Cuban investigator probes the boy’s death and the Canadian policeman faces a hellish fate in a Third World jail, Blair introduces other characters, exploring their lives and personalities. Like a pebble thrown into placid water, the boy’s death has ripple effects, and the investigation soon comes to encompass decades-old child abuse at a rural boarding school.

Publicity notes indicate that the author’s knowledge of Cuba comes from having spent a Christmas in the capital, but the narrator doesn’t come across as an enchanted visitor. Blair’s Cuba isn’t portrayed as a tropical haven or a workers’ paradise. For example, the police have to worry about mundane things such as fuel for their cars, and they lack such essentials as pencils and batteries.

A lawyer by training, Blair’s prose is workmanlike and unadorned, though there’s a sardonic edge to her style. “The contestants on Survivor were better equipped than inmates in a Cuban jail,” the narrator ominously observes of the fate in store if the evidence entangles the Canadian policeman in the crime.

The Beggar’s Opera is a well-crafted whodunit, but with so many twists and turns it perhaps tries too hard to keep the reader eagerly turning pages. Still, it’s a commendable introduction to mystery in an exotic land, and leaves the reader primed for a follow-up.

That duly arrives with The Poisoned Pawn (Penguin Canada, 318 pages, $22 trade paperback). The story picks up immediately where its predecessor ends, with Ramirez this time heading to snowy Ottawa to bring home an elderly priest suspected of involvement in child abuse and child pornography.

The narrative flags in comparison to The Beggar’s Opera, with much time spent on exposition about Catholic church abuse of school children, this time Aboriginal Canadian, and Ramirez’s fish-out-of-water, wide-eyed wonder at crass consumerism.

Along with the sexual abuse scandal, there’s a parallel development with three young women dying of an unlikely poisoning, and the unsolved murder of an old cigar lady in Havana (whose ghost, as with others, manifest themselves to Ramirez, who as a nine-year-old was told by his dying, superstitious grandmother that “the dead will come”).

The plot comes together nicely in a Hollywood-style ending, which extends from ordinary people with murderous intent to international conspiracies at the highest level.

Blair is adept at keeping all these balls in the air, but as you close The Poisoned Pawn it feels as if there’s nowhere left to go and that this lively series may end at two novels . . . but we suspect Blair may have another surprise up her sleeve.

(A former court and police reporter, Julio Gomes is managing editor of The Chronicle-Journal.)

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