A Murder in Passing by Mark de Castrique
A Murder in Passing by Mark de Castrique (Poisoned Pen Press, 2013) is the fourth Sam Blackman Mystery based around the Blackman and Robertson Detective Agency. Sam and Nakayla have a growing reputation as investigators despite the fact their work ethic is more on a hobby level. Their finances are sound without having to work too hard. Sam was a Chief Warrant Officer working for the military police. He’s now retired with a prosthetic leg replacing the one he lost in Iraq. Having overcome the inevitable self-pity, he’s proved his ability in civilian life, making loyal friends and the inevitable enemies as a private investigator.
The book starts with our couple part of a small group investigating the woods for wild mushrooms in the Kingdom of the Happy Land. This historical estate was established by a group of emancipated and runaway slaves but has long been abandoned. Few disturb the land making it an ideal place for mushroom hunting. Embarrassingly, Sam falls over on to a rotten log covered in edible fungus. His hand goes through into what proves to be a hollow space containing a decomposed body. Just the luck of the draw, really. As the police begin their efforts to identify the body, Marsha Montgomery arrives in their offices with a story about the Kingdom, a stolen photograph, and her missing father. This quickly establishes the core of the story as based on a mixed race relationship in 1967 between Marsha’s parents. This year was significant in that the law was changed to allow such couples to marry. Obviously changing laws does not change people’s attitudes and prejudice may have been a significant factor in the white man’s disappearance. Almost immediately after they begin their own informal investigation to decide whether they will take on the case, an overzealous police officer arrests Marsha and her eighty-five year old mother without waiting for evidence to identify the corpse. The reason for the arrest is that Marsha, fearing her mother might have shot her father back in 1967, was seen burying the possible murder weapon in their back yard.
This makes the legal situation of the defence interesting because, if the prosecution can’t prove the identity of the victim, they can’t begin to prove a murder case against the mother and Marsha was only five at the relevant time. There are also some really nice bits of reasoning like the analysis by a ex-sniper of the scene where the shooting is assumed to have taken place. Taking an overview of the plot as it’s slowly rolled out, this is a very elegant rerun of an “idea” that used to be quite common in mystery and detective fiction. Because culture evolves and changes over time, it’s been some years since I last encountered it which makes it all the more pleasing to see an author demonstrate a contemporary relevance. Even if you understand the significance of one piece of evidence when it emerges, the enjoyment of the book is not disturbed. The theme just changes from a mystery to an understanding of the family tragedy as it played out all those years ago and the effect it still has today. The author enhances the theme by including a modern couple weathering prejudice against people in a gay relationship.
Although the plot itself is interesting, the real attraction of the book is the characterisation of our two detectives and their friendly attorney. So avoid the need to repeat myself, you should look at the introduction to my review of Bleed For Me by Michael Robotham on the question of lead characters with a disability and at Beyond the Bridge for a discussion of alcoholism. In this instance, our hero only finds the body because he’s disabled. Having put the coincidence of the right person in the right place at the right time, he’s also very strongly invested in helping other Vets adjust to their newly acquired disabilities. Indeed, he takes a direct interest in helping a young man with a prosthetic hand find employment. When so many in the real world are reluctant to look beyond the financial cost of the wars the US has been engaged in over the last decade or so, it’s distinctly refreshing for an author to be telling a positive story about someone who has lost lost a leg but gained a new perspective on life. All this makes A Murder in Passing a great read.
For a review of another book by Mark de Castrique, see The 13th Target.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.