The Usual Suspects discuss Dark Mirror by Barry Maitland

January 23, 2011 at 5:27 pm (Art, Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

What an exhilarating confab the Usual Suspects enjoyed last Tuesday evening! Of course, it helped that were were discussing a terrific book: Dark Mirror by Barry Maitland.

I read Dark Mirror last winter, so naturally I had forgotten a great deal about the narrative. On Monday, I decided to speed read it in an effort to refresh my memory. To facilitate this effort, I set aside my current reading material. Now, One thing I did recall was how much I had originally liked the book. This time around, I liked it even more. In fact, I found it far more compelling than any of the three books in which I was supposed to be immersed at the time. Go figure…

Last March I wrote a capsule review of Dark Mirror, along with reviews of three other crime novels. I’m going to quote myself here in order to provide you a with a brief synopsis of the plot:

Dark Mirror by Barry Maitland opens with the death of a beautiful young woman. Marion Summers, studious and conscientious, collapses in the London Library and dies shortly thereafter. At first, murder is not even suspected, but further investigation reveals that Marion was in fact poisoned. How and why was this cunning crime carried out? Kathy Kolla’s brief is to find the answer to these deeply troubling questions.

Maitland’s prose and plotting are both elegant. He can also be quite witty on occasion. Here, he’s supposedly quoting another party as to the actual meaning of the famous bet-hedging verdict unique to Scottish law, Not Proven: “Not guilty, but don’t do it again.”

The Brock and Kolla series – David Brock is Kathy Kolla’s mentor on the force – hit the ground running with The Marx Sisters. ( This marvelous entertainment, first published in 1994, is now back in print thanks to the good offices of the folks at Felony & Mayhem Press. And what a great cover!) Dark Mirror is the fourth novel I’ve read in this series. As with the Guido Brunetti novels and Ruth Rendell’s Wexford procedurals, I intend (eventually) to go back and read them all.

Currently living in Australia, Barry Maitland, writer and architect, was born in Scotland.

There’s much more to this novel than the above would indicate. For instance, before reading Dark Mirror, I for one had never heard of the London Library. This institution was founded in 1841 by Thomas Carlyle (encountered not so long ago by Yours Truly in Parallel Lives by Phyllis Rose). Unlike the British library, the London Library lends its materials to members. And taking out a membership is a major commitment; currently the cost is £435.00 per year or £36.25 per month (about $692.57 and $57.72, respectively). The other interesting thing about the London Library is that it does not use  Dewey Decimal classification for the cataloging of materials. Instead, subjects are organized alphabetically. This caused no small amazement among those of us in the group who’ve worked in libraries.  I noodled around on the online catalog for a bit and found the following:  for the volume you want, a “shelfmark” is given; then you’re informed what the work is shelved under. I did a keyword search using the terms “France” and “art.” The first item to come up was an exhibition catalog for the photographer Andre Kertesz.  Click here for the library’s guide to how its art collection is organized. I imagine this system would take some getting used to. I must say, though, that this video made me want to go there immediately!

Many famous scholars and authors have made use of this unique facility. Click here, and their names will appear in the yellow box on the right side of the page. And now you can even hold events there! Probably the closest analogous institution in the U.S. is the Boston Athenaeum, founded in 1807. (See – we have some old stuff in this country too!)

Meanwhile, back to the book: at the time of her death, Marion Summers had been working on her doctoral dissertation. Her subject was the Pre-Raphaelite poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rosetti.

Dante Gabriel Rosetti by William Holman Hunt

She was particularly interested in his fraught marriage to Elizabeth (Lizzie) Siddal. Theirs was a union of brief duration; having recently given birth to a stillborn daughter, Siddal died of a laudanum overdose in 1862. She was 32 years old.

A certain degree of mystery surrounded this death, and still does. Marion meant to penetrate that mystery and get at the truth of this tragic and untimely passing. For more information about Lizzie Siddal, click here.

Lizzie Siddal was frequently drawn and painted by Rosetti and other Pre -Raphaelite artists. My favorite by Rosetti is called “Beata Beatrix:”

Thar rapt expression!. The portrait is rendered especially poignant by the fact that Rosetti painted it after Lizzie’s death.

Probably the most famous painting for which Lizzie was the model is “Ophelia” by John Everett Millais:

.  Here’s the story “Behind the Painting.”

I was intrigued by the degree to which the ghost of Elizabeth Siddal haunts cyberspace. Here is a video tribute:

There’s no getting away from the fact that you can easily get lost in the fathomless depths of the Pre-Raphaelite universe: their lives, their amazingly complicated loves, their poetry, their stunning works of art. The brilliance of the colors in these paintings is due in part to new chemical formulations used in the pigments. Some of  these contained arsenic. Indeed, the thread of arsenic – its use in artists’ pigments and in wallpaper designed and made by William Morris, its presence in the drinking water of Bengladesh, and of course its potency as a poison – e.g., the notorious Madeleine Smith case – is inextricably woven into the fabric of this narrative. The title “Dark Mirror” derives from the results of a test for the presence of arsenic.

Pauline, our discussion leader, was armed with plenty of material to share with us on the London Library and on the Pre-Raphaelites. As always, her enthusiasm and erudition were much appreciated.(I brought along one of my favorite art books:  . The cover is a detail from “The Ball on Shipboard” by James Tissot. Here’s the complete work:   . On the back is a detail from “Work” by Ford Madox Brown: .) We struggled to understand why this group of artists and writers chose to call themselves the Pre-Raphaelites, and what exactly their aims were in doing so. My sense is that one needs a deeper grounding in the esthetic sensibility of the early nineteenth century than any of us had in order to really understand the ferment in the art scene of the times. Meanwhile,  some helpful elucidation can be found on  The Victorian Web.

In the days just prior to this meeting, Pauline e-mailed the group concerning one particular Pre-Raphaelite painting.It is called The Awakening Conscience, a work by William Holman Hunt. In that e-mail, Pauline expressed her belief that the painting had “a symbolic purpose” in Dark Mirror. I found this a provocative suggestion, yet I’m not sure we explored it fully in the course of the discussion. 

For more on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, see Wikipedia’s extensive article.

So, you may be wondering impatiently, what about the murder? As mentioned above, it’s fairly quickly determined that Marion Summers was poisoned. But police are baffled as to how and why. Their investigation takes them to her family and her university. Marion’s stepfather becomes a potential  suspect, as does her faculty advisor Dr. Anthony da Silva. And then it is discovered that despite the strictures imposed by the terms of her scholarship, Marion was earning money as a researcher for a distinguished  scholar and author. This situation must be looked into as well.

Pauline provided us with a comprehensive list of the characters in Dark Mirror, and her eleven questions provoked a lively discussion. One of these queries concerned the working relationship of DI Kathy Kolla and DCI David Brock. Several people new to this series were a bit unsure about the exact nature of that relationship – whether, in other words, it had always been of a  purely professional nature. Those of us who had read earlier Brock and Kolla novels assured the others that it was, with Brock the senior officer acting as a mentor to the newer, younger Kathy. This line of inquiry gave rise to the question, perennial with crime fiction readers, as to which series need to  be read in exact order, to provide background for the characters and their respective situations, and which do not. In the latter category we placed Archer Mayor’s Joe Gunther novels and Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series. I recently presented a program of book talks in which both the Isabel Dalhousie and the Mma Ramotswe novels of Alexander McCall Smith were featured. Afterward, someone came up and asked me the usual question. My response: both series are better read in order, though I think this is more true of the Isabel Dalhousie books than of the No.1 Ladies’ Detective novels.

(What’s your take on which crime fiction series can be read in any order and which should b e read in strict series order?)

In addition to The Marx Sisters and Dark Mirror, I’ve read these Brock and Kolla novels: . Recently my friends at Felony & Mayhem Press brought this one out: .  It currently resides at the top of my to-read pile (which is no guarantee of when it will actually get read).

One question on Pauline’s list that I particularly like is this: “Is the book more plot driven than character driven or vice versa?” I think that we suspects would agree that the best crime fiction balances both of these characteristics more or less evenly, and I believe we pretty much agreed that in Dark Mirror, Barry Maitland achieved this rather tricky equipoise to a remarkable degree.

Pauline gave us quite a bit of interesting background on this author. Born in Paisley, Scotland in 1941, Maitland grew up in London. After studying architecture at Cambridge, he went on to practice that profession, eventually adding a doctorate in urban design (from Sheffield University) to his list of academic credentials. In 1984 he took up the post of  head of the school of architecture at the University of Newcastle in New South Wales, Australia, He continued in this position until the year 2000.  Barry Maitland still lives in Australia and now writes full time. (For further information, visit the author’s official site.)

(ALERT: Potential spoilers, in the next two paragraphs.)

Although we were in general agreement concerning the superior quality of Dark Mirror, group members did have certain reservations.  Several people were unhappy about the manner in which the crimes were solved. They felt that we the readers had been insufficiently prepared for the identity of  the perpetrators, and even more, that those individuals, one in particular, made highly unlikely culprits. In addition, the necessary preparations for the commission of the murder seemed rather farfetched, labor intensive, and hard to envision. ( I found myself agreeing with these objections during the meeting. At the time of my reading – and rereading – of the novel, however, I had thought the solution to the puzzle a marvel of ingenuity!)

One other objection that was raised had to do with the killing and mutilation of a cat. This heinous act was undertaken as a scare tactic against Kathy Kolla; needless to say, it worked. But we were in accord about our loathing of the use of cruel acts such as this as a plot device. Such devices, alas, appear with disconcerting frequency in crime and suspense fiction, most notably and recently in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The victims are almost invariably cats. Do authors assume that cat owners  are less emotionally attached to their pets than their canine-owning counterparts? Think again! And now that I’m on the subject, I don’t recall that Maitland ever divulged  the identity of the perpetrator(s) of this atrocious act, or how said perpetrator(s) gained access to Kathy Kolla’s premises.

(For an exceptionally sympathetic and sensitive portrait of how the death of a beloved pet affects its owner and others, see Wee Jock’s Lament. This made for television film, based on the characters created by M.C. Beaton in her Hamish Macbeth novels, is one of the most elegantly structured works of its kind that I’ve ever seen. It is also almost unbearably poignant. Click here for a summary of the plot. The concluding scene appears in the video segment below.)

My sense from the group was that despite certain perceived flaws, Dark Mirror was thought to be a fine work of crime fiction. Just about everyone, whether new to the series or not, expressed their willingness to read another title in the Brock and Kolla series.

***********************************

I’m sure I speak for all the Suspects when I express my pleasure in Barb’s presence at this meeting. Welcome back, Barb!

15 Comments

  1. Pauline Cohen said,

    Roberta,

    You did yourself proud with all of the beautiful reproductions of the paintings.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Thanks, Pauline. I just love looking at the gorgeous art online!

  2. Carol said,

    Very interesting post, Roberta.

    Also – I would like to add an expression of our pleasure at the presence of Barb’s friend and helper, Louise, as well as that of Kitty, a new member.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Yes – thanks, Carol. I agree completely.

  3. Elizabeth said,

    Another great suggestion! I can’t wait to read this one!

    P.S. My Mom is currently (right this moment) reading Peter Turnbull’s Fear of Drowning and when she is finished she is passing it on to me.

  4. Roberta Rood said,

    Elizabeth, I feel sure you’ll enjoy DARK MIRROR. and I’m delighted at the prospect of yet more readers enjoying Peter Turnbull’s excellent procedurals.

  5. Angie Boyter said,

    Roberta, this post is going to make my TBR stack EVEN HIGHER! This series sounds great! I’m not sure you’re doing me a favor! :>)
    However, could you give us the page numbers for the cat mutilation so I can skip it?

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Angie,

      I’d say, skip pp. 162-164 & you’ll be safe.

      It’s an unfortunate incident in an otherwise fine novel. One does wish that we could get the message across to writers – please don’t do this.

  6. Roman A. Vasher said,

    Most intriguing.

  7. Barbara said,

    Wee Jock’s Lament is heartbreaking….I have two wonderful Westies and cannot imagine how I will cope when their time comes. Thanks for another interesting post.

  8. Ellen Levin said,

    Very interesting post, Roberta, on both DARK MIRROR and the Brock and Kolla books in general. Regarding whether or not one should read series books in order, I almost always do so – I’m a bit of a purist about it!

  9. Yvette said,

    Another great post, Roberta. Because of your recommendation of a writer I’d never heard of before, Barry Maitland, I read both Dark Mirror and No Trace. I reviewed No Trace on my blog. I love the way you tie in all the different angles of the books you review, makes everything all the more fascinating. JJJ Tissot is one of my very favorite painters, great to see his work included in the post. Of course I am a big fan of the Pre-Raphaelites. I love the romance aspect and the use of fabric design.

    I’m with you on the animal mutilation incident. I just skim over that sort of thing and, of course, you’d hope any writer would think twice before including this sort of thing. I’ve been known to skip a book that has too much of this sort of thing. Thankfully, they’re few and far between.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Thank you so much for this gracious comment, Yvette. Your praise means a great deal to me!

      • Yvette said,

        Yegads! I used ‘this sort of thing’ three times in rapid succession! Where is my editing gene??? 🙂

  10. Yvette said,

    …and oh jeez, you’re welcome, Roberta. I love your blog. That’s what I meant to post.

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