cover image Except the Dying

Except the Dying

Maureen Jennings. Thomas Dunne Books, $15.95 (288pp) ISBN 978-0-312-16829-2

In this exhilarating first novel, Jennings creates more than a period mystery: she brings alive 1895 Toronto, struggling economically, teeming with immigrants and thick with paupers. William Murdoch is the police department's sole detective, a new rank. Investigating the murder of Therese Laporte, a young servant, leads the intelligent, observant Murdoch through a stratified society, from the gloomy rooms of prostitutes Alice Black and Ettie Weston to the elegant home of the Rhodes family, Therese's employers, and the exclusive Yeoman Club. He also digs into the morality of his suspects, confirming that venery and secrets are universal, which leads to the surprising solution. There are wonderful touches: Murdoch, lonely since his financee died two years earlier, enrolls in a dance class and practices solitary waltzing in his rented room; an unhappy woman treasures a colored vial containing her tears; a house's gable leans ""slightly towards its neighbour as if for comfort""; a pock-marked man is ""cribbage-faced."" In a bravura piece of writing, Jennings describes the annual newsboys' meeting of scruffy, destitute youngsters, cynical and amoral beyond their years. Although occasionally succumbing to melodrama and heavy-handed hints, Jennings is a talented writer. Here's a first novel that whets the appetite for more. (Nov.)