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by Maureen Jennings
McClelland & Stewart, May 2007
352 pages
$22.99 CDN
ISBN: 0771043384

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Detective Will Murdoch of the Toronto constabulary finds himself unexpectedly in charge of the station in his boss's absence. While Inspector Brackenreid is away, in a sanitarium being treated for alcoholism it turns out, Murdoch must investigate the gruesome death of one Daniel Cooke, owner of a livery stable, who has been brutally flogged.

Then an elderly black man is found shot, his body tied in a punishment position familiar to slaves and their owners in the American South. Murdoch too will find his life endangered as he extends his investigation in Toronto's small black community and into the illegal world of bare-knuckle prizefighting.

Thanks to a prologue set in 1858, the reader knows from the outset what Murdoch does not that this crime stems from that much greater crime, slavery, and almost as quickly who has perpetrated it, if not precisely why.

But of course, Murdoch is in the dark, a condition which allows Jennings to pursue her signature technique, the revelation of an unexamined aspect of Toronto life in the 1890s. It is an approach that has served her quite well in the past, providing the opportunity for affecting accounts of midwifery and abortion, the sexual exploitation of children, and the excesses of Christian charity in a Victorian Toronto that liked to think of itself as morally superior to the rest of the universe.

It is, however, a technique that is beginning to wear thin. A JOURNEYMAN TO GRIEF is more a scrapbook of odd social historical facts than a coherent narrative. We start with Murdoch's attending a lecture on fear being presented by a visiting foreign professor who seems to have mislaid his aitches, though thankfully he finds them again in a later chapter. Nothing much is made of this despite a fairly lengthy account. We learn a bit about charlatans who profess to treat alcoholism. Then there is the excursion into Toronto's small, but exceedingly respectable, black community, which has some connection to the crime under scrutiny, but not perhaps that much. Bare-knuckle boxing, about which too much has already been written, also comes into the picture.

Perhaps this patchwork approach would have mattered less had there been any doubt about the identity of the murderer or the general motive for the crimes. But in the absence of any real suspense, the reader is left to observe the weaknesses in narrative and structure that make this essentially an unsatisfying outing for Will Murdoch. The detective does, however, remain his usual decent, thoroughly nice self, and that may be enough to please his many fans.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, May 2007

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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