The Accomplice, Elizabeth Ironside, Felony & Mayhem, $14.95.
"If it's true and you do nothing about it, you're sharing in the crime. You're an accomplice."
Being fellow booksellers, the folks at Felony & Mayhem have a pretty good idea of what's worth keeping in print, and lots of their reprints of previously hard to find classics by authors as varied as Lynn Hightower and Caroline Graham are now joined by the previously unpublished in the U.S. Elizabeth Ironside. Why Ironside has never been published here before is a good question too, but it's happily been rectified, first by Ironside's earlier novel, A Death in the Garden, and now by this slightly later - and superior - novel, The Accomplice. Much like Ruth Rendell, Minette Walters, and Elizabeth George, Ironside is incredibly gifted at the nuances not only of the characters themselves, but the nuances of their interactions. To look away for even a sentence is to miss a lot; a stolen glance or look might give the whole show away.
Like Minette Walters, who now writes novels about crime rather than specifically murder mystery, Ironside writes about plenty of crime, but not always necessarily murder. There's plenty of mystery here though, enough that you will be impelled to know the whys of this complex, beautifully written and told story. It begins in a garden, with the handover of keys of an old woman's house to her step-son and his wife. As the step-son and wife heedlessly plan their renovations, the old woman, now installed in a convenient and comfortable new townhouse, thinks back over her event and tragedy filled life. The book goes between three narrators - one, Yevgenia/Jean, the old woman; Zita, the middle aged attorney, single mother of a disabled child who is the go-between; and Xenia, a young visitor from Russia who has ostensibly come to England to learn more about her relatives. Nothing is as it seems, however, and when a skeleton is unearthed in the garden of Yevgenia's old house, the skeleton of a child with a hole in its skull, events begin to accelerate.
Yevgenia - or Jean Loftus, as she has been known - is trying to come to terms with her past. She had been the childhood victim of the Russian Revolution - losing both parents - and the later victim of the upheavals and horror of the second world war, as she tries to live a quiet life in Latvia. Latvia, sandwiched between Belarus, Poland and Germany was a point of entry for both German and Russian troops and a bad place to be. Emerging from a sheltered, idealistic girlhood where her main decision had been which of her cousins she should marry, Yevgenia is now confronted with the complexity of allegiances that flared up during that war, the vanishing and murder of thousands of men, women and children, and the disappearance and brutal death of her husband. She is eventually forced to flee and what happens after that is so horrible that it almost drives her crazy. She describes her British life to Zita as "so even" and indeed it must have been after the horrors of the war.
Zita is the go between, as she is the lawyer for Jean and her family, and as Jean's stepson and his wife are not in the area, she is the one who must deal with the police over the matter of the skeleton in the garden. As she becomes more interested in proving that the skeleton and her beloved Jean could have had nothing to do with one another, she is also drawn into Xenia's web, albeit inadvertently. Xenia, an opportunistic and desperate young Russian, has intruded herself on Yevgenia/Jean's stepson and his wife, with the intention of finding, at all costs, a way to stay in the country. When Zita mentions at one point to Jean that Xenia will after all be leaving in a few weeks, Jean answers briskly, "I don't think so". She understands her fellow Russian. The introduction of Xenia is like the halfway point in a Ruth Rendell novel - you know nothing that follows after that can possibly be good.
There are many versions of being an "accomplice" in this novel, not just one. It's not a straight up murder mystery, even though there are several murders in the story, it's more a novel about the ways people can manipulate one another for good or evil. In the case of Xenia, it's evil, though Ironside has cloaked her in the realistic covering of the sullen young person looking in, only polite because it gets her what she wants. Some of the surrounding adults fall for it and others don't, but all of them fall for at least one bit of her manipulations. This is a fascinating and layered story; the parts that happen in the past are just as electric as the parts in the present. Ironside's careful writing style takes a bit of getting used to, especially if you aren't used to British writing, but it's well worth taking the trouble. This is the work of a more than accomplished novelist.
To browse more reviews, use the navigation links at the top of the page.