Maureen Jennings: Heat Wave

This book is available on April 30, 2019.

The prolific Maureen Jennings begins a new series with Heat Wave, set in 1936 Toronto, which is experiencing a particularly brutal heat wave.  The main character is young Charlotte Frayne, a fledgling private eye who works for the usually unflappable Thaddeus Gilmore.  When she arrives at work the day the book opens, though, Mr. Gilmore has received a particularly nasty piece of hate mail, and he hurries off.

When he’s away, several things happen.  One of them is that owner of the nearby Paradise Café comes by and asks Gilmore and associates to look into some theft going on at his restaurant. The other is a call from Mr. Gilmore, informing Charlotte that his wife has been taken to the hospital, the victim of some type of attack.

Disturbed, Charlotte never the less agrees to turn up at the Paradise Café to train for a waitressing shift as she feels going undercover may help her to find the culprit.  Jennings has long been an expert at setting a stage, baiting her hook, and creating memorable characters who come to life on the page, and this new series proves to be no different in that regard from her other novels.

And early on, an old friend shows up – Inspector Murdoch, though it’s 1936, and it’s Jack Murdoch, son of the beloved Thomas.  It seems appropriate though, as Jennings pulls the reader into a new era in Toronto, that she bring some of the past along as well.  I was glad to see him.

The threads of the novel are complex, but Jennings has a sure hand, and they are never confusing.  Mr. Gilmore is arrested for the attack on his wife, and so along with sorting out matters at the Paradise Café, Charlotte is also trying to exonerate her boss. She’s also worrying about a new lady friend of her grandfather’s, a humorous and gentle sidebar.

For me, the heart of the book was the Paradise, run by four WWI vets who bonded when they were all kept in the same prison camp.  The war has left different marks on all four, but they support each other and with the Paradise, they are trying to make sure no one in their little slice of Toronto goes hungry – that no one starves, as they were kept starving in their prison camp. The first meal Charlotte helps to serve is called “Camp Day” complete with “war” bread.

Several years ago we were lucky enough to host Ms. Jennings at our book store and she had the concept for this novel in mind.  One of the central themes is how the Paradise got its name, which is from the food that takes you back to Paradise.  The meal that when you think of it, brings back so many happy, safe memories, you are in effect back home.  When Maureen described this to the audience at the store I think all of us were thinking of a favorite meal prepared by our mothers or grandmothers, and when one of the characters talks about why he loves cream, that’s the heart of the novel.

Jennings is unusual among historical novelists in that she doesn’t write about the titled or privileged, she instead writes about the everyday people that surely we would have been were we to live in whatever time period she is describing.  Along with telling a great story, she also manages to almost re-create a place.  I felt I had been to 1936 Toronto after I finished this wonderful book.  A wonderful story, well told – highly recommended.