“…to see every June the dark flowers of Tuscany Superb blossoming over the bones.” – The Accomplice, by Elizabeth Ironside

July 4, 2008 at 8:40 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

How could Jean Loftus and her husband Kenward have lived in Asshe House for decades and not have known about the body buried in the back garden? This is just one of the many questions that surface in the course of Elizabeth Ironside’s elegantly written and meticulously constructed puzzler, The Accomplice. All kinds of surprises lurk in this narrative, not the least of which concerns the true identity of the extravagantly named Evgenia Konstantinovna Chournoroukaya. This illustrious-sounding personage turns out to be none other than the aforementioned Jean Loftus!

As the novel opens, Jean/Evgenia is an elderly widow increasingly immobilized by severe arthritis. She can no longer move about Asshe House with ease and has thus decided to turn the stately home over to her stepson Marcus and his wife Naomi. It is the latter’s project of re-landscaping the back of the house that causes the bones, long buried beneath the roses, to be brought to light.

Evgenia’s back story is told in chapters interspersed throughout the present day narrative. It is equal parts fascinating and harrowing. She came of age at the worst possible time, in the worst possible place: Latvia during the Second World War. She suffered terrible losses before she was able to emigrate to England and start a new life.

Zita Daunsey is Evgenia’s friend and solicitor. She lives with her son Tom, who has cerebral palsy. Zita is also recently divorced from Oliver, who, it seems, couldn’t deal with Tom’s disability. She was thus put in the grotesque position of having to choose between her husband and her child. She chose Tom. It makes for a difficult home life, and there are times when she feels frustrated and resentful, but Zita loves her son fiercely. By all accounts she should loathe her ex-husband with an equal ferocity, but instead, she pines for him and misses him. Such are the vagaries of the human heart…

When Xenia, a student, comes from Russia to stay with Mark and Naomi, events in the novel take an unexpected turn. Xenia claims to be Evgenia’s distant relation, a contention which Evgenia herself rejects out of hand. But that doesn’t faze Xenia, who has a plan of her own devising which she doesn’t hesitate to put into action.

Although The Accomplice was written in 1996, it was not published here until ten years later. Despite being greatly admired by reviewers and readers alike, Elizabeth Ironside’s novels could not find a publisher here until Maggie Topkis of the famed Partners & Crime mystery bookstore in Greenwich Village decided to import them directly from the U.K. She hand sold Ironside’s Death in the Garden with so much success that she decided to take things a step further. Felony & Mayhem Press, founded by Ms. Topkis in 2005, specializes in reprinting titles of interest that are no longer in print, at least in this country and possibly in the U.K. as well.

Meanwhile, she had an interesting experience while tracking down the author of the two aforementioned works. “Elizabeth Ironside” turned out to be the pseudonym of Lady Catherine Manning, wife of the British ambassador to the U.S.!

[Lady Catherine and Sir David Manning]

Felony & Mayhem has a great list, but good luck trying to tease it out of a site that’s perpetually “under construction.” Titles are classified as British, Traditional, Historical, Hardboiled, Espionage, or Vintage. Topkis engages in a little ad hoc readers’ advisory on the back cover of each book. “Who’s Likely to Like This?” she asks rhetorically on the back off The Accomplice. The answer is, “Fans of Ruth Rendell, Minette Walters and Death in the Garden.” I agree, though for the record, I found Death in the Garden somewhat tedious in spots. For my money, The Accomplice is an altogether more compelling, tightly constructed work.

(A good way of getting a list of titles published by Felony & Mayhem is to do a search on Amazon for “Felony & Mayhem Mysteries.” )

One final word concerns the novel’s title. Ironside uses the word “accomplice” at several critical junctures in the narrative to describe the way in which an individual, by not acting on knowledge that he or she possesses, becomes an accomplice with regard to another’s malevolent actions. In other words, the author is referring to sins of omission, rather than commission. It’s a provocative concept, with crucial moral implcations for the characters in The Accomplice.


  1. The year in Mystery: Favorites, Group One, Part One « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] The Accomplice by Elizabeth Ironside. I was pleasantly surprised by this intense, gracefully written novel. I say that because I wasn’t a great fan of this author’s Death in the Garden. […]

  2. Books to talk about – a personal view « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Cold in Hand – John Harvey Monster in the Box, Simisola, and Judgement in Stone– Ruth Rendell The Accomplice – Elizabeth Ironside The Suspect – L.R. Wright Finding Nouf – Zoe Ferraris Bleeding Heart […]

  3. A tale of two bookstores, with a digression concerning Maryland’s Eastern Shore « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Because I really liked The Accomplice; […]

  4. DEEPIKA BOHRA said,

    This is one of the best book I have ever read, I am deeply impressed with the style and finery in which novel has been written…., I just picked up this book from airport in 2004, it was left by someone and I am lucky to have found it anyway!!!
    This is complex book but emotionally engaging at same time, requires the patience of mind as you cannot predict the climax quiet unlike some other novel where it is easy to guess on what would be the ending!!!

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