Maureen Jennings’ Except the Dying
St. Martin’s Press, 1997
M&S, 2004

Remember when I said that I’d be reading mysteries and classics this summer? Well, I’m doing a great job of reading those mysteries.

The classics are definitely taking a backseat. It’s been hot; we’ve been busy (bike-riding, playing games, learning to do paper maché, skipping, and, yes, visiting libraries); I’ve been reading the books with the most gripping plots.

I bought Maureen Jennings’ first Murdoch mystery when it came out in paperback.

It was a little while ago, in Reading Intention Years. You know, they’re longer than regular years. The opposite of the Dog Year phenomenon. Whereby a dog who’s 10 years old in human years is actually 70 years old.

A single Reading Intention Year is the equivalent of seven regular years. So even if it was 1998 when I bought Except the Dying, that’s really only a couple of years, at the outside.

At least, it certainly doesn’t seem as though I’ve been thinking about reading Maureen Jennings‘ Murdoch series for more than a decade in actual years. But, in fact, it has taken me that many years to make Murdoch’s acquaintance.

Nonetheless, I’m fairly certain that I’ll be reading the next book in the series much more quickly. Not only would it fit under the umbrella of what Walter Mosley calls “literary quality”, but it’s a compelling story too. (And, as a bonus for me, it’s Toronto-soaked, albeit a Victorian Toronto, which both is, and is not, the city that I know and love.)

It would also make for an entertaining yet informative addition to those who are reading for the Women Unbound Reading Challenge because it considers the opportunities (and lack thereof) available to women in Victorian times, those in both upper and lower classes. This reminded me, in some ways, of the Anne Perry mysteries I read in my 20s, but I enjoyed this debut Victorian mystery even more than Thomas and Charlotte’s debut in The Cater Street Hangman (1979).

“Because, miss, the body of a female person has been found in the laneway. Practically in your back garden, as you might say.”
He paused for their reaction, but there was none. No expression of any kind, except stillness. They reminded him of two cats who’d come into the yard of his lodging house last winter.

These cats Murdoch is thinking of are the kind who bite and growl and scratch when he tried to befriend them, and the women to whom he’s speaking have had a hard life too: their claws are sharp and at-the-ready. He is sensitive enough to recognize that their actions are rooted in self-defense, and to afford them respect nonetheless, although not so foolish as to fall into the traps they set for him either.

Murdoch is not only a credible character, but a likeable one as well. Well, providing you’re not threatened by his abilities and his pursuit of justice.

His superior is troubled by Murdoch’s determination, which urges him to consider the roles played by every single person who came into contact with the young woman who dies at the beginning of the novel, including members of the upper classes. Murdoch is clever enough to recognize the boundaries and restrictions that accompany his own class and position but he relentlessly pursues the truth within those limitations.

“For God’s sake, Murdoch, you’re snatching at straws. According to you nobody is telling the truth about anything,” Inspector Brackenreid declares. But Murdoch keeps digging.

Except the Dying held my interest even when the temperature was in the high 30s and the girls were making a ruckus; if I was rating books by jungle leaves, as the girls are doing when they’re not ruckus-ing and are quietly reading instead, I’d be giving this one five leaves for sure.

Have you read a good mystery lately? Have you found something to distract you from the extreme temperatures outside (be they extremely hot or cold)?

PS I’m also counting this as my “X” for Titles for the A-to-Z Reading Challenge…X’s are tough, as you might have guessed!