John Moss is a Canadian writer who wrote to me recently asking me to look at one of his books, murder mysteries which are not well known over here, although he tells me he is often seen as writing in a rather English tradition. He kindly sent me Grave Doubts, a Toronto murder mystery – and rather more – featuring a duo of detectives who are partners at work in the City murder squad, but whose friendship is as much more than that as it can be without them being partners in another sense.
I thought it was actually quite interesting, although I didn’t think it was really very English in style, although the concentration on Canadian (Toronto) history naturally led you away from that. What I did think, was that it was decidedly not American, which you might assume if you didn’t know how much that irritates most Canadians! The story starts very intriguingly, with a pair of bodies discovered in an old house, mummified by having been concealed behind a wall which made the space both airless and dry. They are in a loving embrace, but they lack their heads. The detectives – Miranda Quin and David Morgan – visit the site out of interest, and find various archaeological investigations under way. The heads appear, in a loving kiss, nearby in the same building. Predictably, the ancient bodies turn out to be modern, cleverly faked up, which means that the old building features which concealed them were faked too.
This naturally limits the number of people involved, and it rapidly becomes clear that the likely perpetrators are among the group of people they met when they visited the site of the immurals – the archaeologists, the pathologist, and the buildings expert and, unbelievably, the policewoman on duty. This cramps the novel slightly, but it remains engaging, although Grant can be a slight bore with his showing off and unlikely intellectual musings. At this point, the novel took an unlikely turn to my mind, though I quite enjoyed it in a detached sort of way. The perpetrators – because that’s obvious what they were – then engaged in a complex game of leaving clues for the detectives with increasing bravado in the name of a disinterested interest in perfect fakery, with no personal motives for the two original murders or the several others later discovered. The culmination comes in a James Bond style cliffhanger at the end, with a race against time to prevent one of the detectives being killed in a gruesome and macabre scene.
I enjoyed this as a narrative which kept me interested, and it was full of surprises, though often in an unsurprising way – that is, the plot has several unexpected twists and turns, but the original set up was so constrained, you knew the killer or killers came from a vary narrow group of people with an odd set of motives. But Moss manages to throw in a mild lesbian fling, a lot of Canadian history, some pretty evocative writing about the Canadian landscape and townscape, and some rather self-consciously aware social observations. Not, in my view, a great thriller/mystery, but a perfectly acceptable one, and one with a lot of unusual features. I’ll read another if John Moss succeeds in getting them into British bookshops!