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by Olga Wojtas
Felony & Murder Press, November 2018
264 pages
ISBN: 1631941704

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Earlier this year we marked the centenary of Muriel Spark, whose most widely-read novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is the takeoff point for this charming bit of comic crime. Shona McMonagle is a fifty-something librarian, alumna of the school where Miss Brodie held forth, and one who loathes That Book, which is the closest she can come to naming it. Indeed, rather a lot of her professional energies are spent in trying to ensure that none of the library's patrons can get their hands on a copy. Naturally, she is delighted when Miss Blaine herself appears to inform Shona that she has been selected to participate in a time-travel jaunt designed to disseminate the values of the school and thus make the world a better place. Miss Blaine herself is a time-traveller as she would be pushing two hundred if she were still alive.

Off Shona goes, finding herself in Tsarist Russia at an unspecified year. This factual mystery becomes a running joke, as Shona, repeatedly thwarted as she tries to get hold of a newspaper, searches her Google-like and Miss Blaine's-trained memory for the exact date of things referred to by those she meets.

But that is not all she doesn't know. Miss Blaine has not informed her of what exact event she's been sent back in time to prevent. The resolute librarian is not daunted, however. Armed with the perfection of a Miss Blaine's education (the best in Edinburgh, that is, the world), startlingly fluent in Russian, presenting herself as a Russian Princess, and absolutely confident in her judgements, Shona sets out to teach Scottish country dancing to a collection of Russian nobility, helpfully accompanying them on the accordion, while preventing the engagement of a young heiress, Lidia Ivanova, to an elderly general and see her safely wed to a handsome young man named Sasha.

Shona is a walking anachronism. Fashionably dressed in the style of whatever year it might be but wedded to her Doc Martens, she declares herself a committed feminist (a word that totally confuses all who hear it), as well as an egalitarian (a position that distresses the serfs she seems to own whether she wants them or not). But her education has provided her with an armour of impenetrable self-confidence that prevents her from comprehending much of what is under her nose.

A disturbing number of elderly widows of considerable fortune tumble downstairs within the next day or two. Shona does not find this peculiar; indeed, she doesn't find it worrying when she herself is the object of a murderous attack. And then another one. She is absolutely dedicated to uniting Lidia and Sasha and cannot be deterred.

In some ways Shona McMonagle is reminiscent of the doughty Victorians who travelled to the colonies to spread enlightenment and Protestantism and who tended to remain in almost complete ignorance of the culture they had landed in while maintaining an impregnable disapproval of how the native did things. But by and large this is not political satire; it is a comic romp and has many moments of laugh out loud absurdities. If there is anything to complain about, it is that is ever so slightly repetitive. It's a very funny premise, but the joke is repeated a bit too often. All the same, it's a marvellous bit of slapstick mystery, and comic mysteries are all too rare, largely because they are so hard to pull off.

The title, echoing as it does a string of a lengthy school-related series, may just be a sly joke or it may indicate the hope that Miss Blaine's may enjoy a longevity similar to Hogwarts. While the audience for these will not be the same, I hope the time-travelling Shona McMonagle will make a few more passes through the space-time continuum to amuse and divert us.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, October 2018

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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