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THE POISONED PAWN
by Peggy Blair
Pintail, February 2014
336 pages
$16.00
ISBN: 014318976X


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Wow! It took me two readings to absorb enough of this novel to review it. The complexity overwhelmed me the first time through, but the agility of the writing and the obvious broad knowledge of multiple cultures (not very familiar to me) made the second reading both inviting and rewarding.

Inspector Richard Ramirez of Havana picks up where he left off in the first in the series (THE BEGGAR'S OPERA) along with pathologist Hector Apiro, a dwarf who is his closest friend and sounding-board. We begin with the murder of an elderly cigar lady who appears to have been stabbed through the heart. Her white clothing and shaved head strongly suggest that she is a devotee of Santeria, an offshoot combination of Yoruba religion and Catholicism. Rather quickly, her ghost begins to accompany Ramirez, and only Ramirez, as he investigates her death and then those of two Canadian tourists and a woman from the police department.

In the meantime, Ramirez's superior has arranged for him to travel to Ottawa to take custody of an old priest, Rey Callendes, who almost surely was involved in the abuse of orphan boys in both Canada and Cuba; Canada's trade relations with Cuba and pressure from the Vatican make it expedient for Cuba to deal with the crimes . In bitter cold Ottawa -- oh, poor freezing Ramirez! -- there is an Ojibway officer named Charlie Pike who is a tremendous help and a woman named Celia Jones whose connections to the government assist in reaching both her own (she wishes to adopt a Cuban child that she knows of) and Ramirez's goals (which are far more centered on figuring out what is going on and who is doing it than upon simply hauling an almost assuredly guilty Callendes back to Cuba).

Both Celia Jones and another character named Mike Ellis figured in the first novel but this time Ellis is accused of murdering one of the victims, his own wife. Because of their continued relationship to Ramirez and that of the plots of both novels, and especially the exquisitely convoluted style of author Peggy Blair's storytelling, it might make sense for the reader to try THE BEGGAR'S OPERA before reading THE POISONED PAWN.

The threads of political gamesmanship in both Canada and Cuba, behind-the-back sneers at the enormous failures of the Cuban government under Fidel Castro and now his brother Raul, longterm and deliberate corruption in the Catholic Church in its attempts to hide its refusal to deal with its monstrous history of child abuse (not to mention its callous abandonment of the victims), the presence of spirits who try to advise Ramirez who can't understand them, and the threat that the murders are not murders but an indication of some kind of toxic substance in Havana (like the rum or the water supply) -- whew! All of this is the environment in which Ramirez and his very few trusted cohorts try to sort out what is really happening. Although these threads constantly overshadow and intrude on Ramirez's investigation, the author never lets them overwhelm it, pulling the story and the reader back to the central issue just in time over and over again. It's genius. And very complicated.

Not for the reader who wants everything to unfold logically and clearly or the one who wants the solutions presented on a platter, THE POISONED PAWN is startling and rather amazing and requires an effort on the part of the reader to "get it." The threads don't all get snipped off or tied up. Ramirez will be back.

Diana Borse is retired from teaching English at Texas A&M University-Kingsville and savoring the chance to read as much as she always wanted to.

Reviewed by Diana Borse, March 2014

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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