Murder resounds through the ages
My not-so-guilty pleasure has been reading murder mysteries. The appeal of one sub-category of the genre however has always eluded me: the historical mystery. It’s never sat right with me that a medieval monk, a backwoods pioneer, or a Roman aristocrat should be able to solve crimes using the methods, if not the tools, of modern sleuths. Too much transferring of our own times—and outlooks—into other eras.
But along comes Sylvia Maultash Warsh with a different approach. Her three novels, all featuring Toronto doctor Rebecca Temple, take place in contemporary times (in the late 1970s to be more exact), as well as in the more distant past.
The first, To Die in Spring, involved the death of one of Temple’s patients that led her into an historical web involving events in both Nazi-ruled Poland and under the fascist regime in Argentina. The second novel, the prize-winning Find Me Again, ran a parallel story of intrigue and romance in 18th-century Europe that eventually linked up in surprising ways with the latest murder Temple was investigating in 20th-century Toronto.
When I first read the cover blurb about Warsh’s new Temple mystery, I groaned twice—once for “here we go again, a murder that ties into an historical story” and again for “not another Holocaust story”, for Season of Iron alternates between 1979 Toronto and 1930s Germany.
But a few chapters into the novel, I was once again engrossed in a wonderfully organized mystery of character.
Temple finds an apparently crazy old bag lady dead in the courtyard of a residence down the street from her Beverley St. office. The German-accented people who live in the house know the deceased woman they call Birdie but they are obviously hiding something. In flashbacks we start following the initially sad and eventually horrifying story of the Eisenbaums, a Jewish family in Berlin during Hitler’s reign of terror. We know there’s a connection between the two story lines but we’re not quite sure what it is, especially as characters and plot twists are layered onto the contemporary tale.
As with previous entries in the series, the whodunit aspects of Season of Iron are almost beside the point. The mystery is only nominally about finding Birdie’s killer, and has more to with unravelling the threads that connect people over time and place. You don’t need to be a mystery fan to experience its hefty emotional impact.
On a lighter note, the accurate and detailed Toronto references in this Warsh novel are, as always, a delight for local readers. She’s almost obsessive about presenting street directions, descriptions of buildings and feels of neighbourhoods—and getting them exactly right for 1979 as I recall them. I’m not sure what people elsewhere get from this, but having read so much about the mean streets of New York and L.A. in detective fiction, I get a thrill from finding our own town the scene of the crimes (unfortunately something that’s becoming familiar in non-fictional Toronto too).