Review: My Darling Detective by Howard Norman

My Darling Detective by Howard Norman is a witty, engrossing homage to noir (available March 28, 2017).

Jacob Rigolet, “a soon-to-be former assistant to a wealthy art collector,” is attending an auction and preparing to make a bid. Out of nowhere, his mother—resident of the Nova Scotia Rest Hospital and former Head Librarian at the Halifax Free Library—appears. Why is she on the lam from her lock-down medical facility? Shockingly, Nora Rigolet, née Ives, tosses a jar of black ink at the Robert Capa photograph Death on a Leipzig BalconyHoward Norman weaves the work of famed war photographer Robert Capa into the story. The auction attendees on March 19th, 1977, would certainly have been acquainted with the work of Capa’s photographs.

Nora Rigolet dubs her detective interrogator, Martha Crauchet, an “interlocutrix.” Stretching credulity but completely necessary to this compelling noir-ish tale, Martha is also Jacob’s fiancée. The mystery behind Nora’s action lies in events that took place years earlier. Unbelievably, Martha tells Jacob that his father, deceased war hero Bernard Rigolet, is not his real father. Who was his father then? Is he still alive?

My Darling Detective straddles two time periods: the war years when Jacob was conceived and Halifax in the late 1970s. A third strand that weaves through the story is the fictional radio drama Detective Levy Detects. Jacob and Martha are obsessed with it.

“In tonight’s episode,” the announcer said, “Detective Frederik Levy and the love of his life and partner in sleuthing, Leah Diamond, have been called in to investigate the murder of Fanwell Birch, who worked the newspaper stand in the lobby of the Hotel Devonshire.”

The announcer finishes with a flourish: “Apparently, nobody heard the shot. Well, then again, Fanwell Birch probably heard it.” Martha and Jacob usually listen to the serial while they’re in bed at Martha’s apartment.

“You know, darling, even when I’m here alone, I usually listen to Detective Levy Detects in bed. And it’s not that I actually want to be Leah Diamond—well, all right, maybe for a night.”

A radio serial that uncannily mirrors the life of its listeners is reminiscent of the Jon Amiel movie Tune in Tomorrow, which is set in 1950s New Orleans. The convoluted love story of the protagonists mirrors—much to their shock when they figure it out—the script of the soap-opera/radio drama that they (and everyone) is obsessed with. The decisive statement of the radio drama’s writer: “Art is two cannibals on a desert island. Eat or be eaten,” echoes the twists and turns of Jacob and Martha’s journey, a love story permeated with detecting and long-hidden secrets.

My Darling Detective opens with a pithy epigraph: Heraclitus’s statement, “Things keep their secrets.” Jacob, with the help of Martha and his mother, examines the secrets of his past, albeit reluctantly at times. It all comes to a head one night when he’s lying awake, looking at “Martha’s satchel on the silent valet.”

It hung there like a reproach, in the sense that suddenly it felt as if I should be keeping up with Martha’s cold-case investigation to whatever extent I could. I admired how Martha looked at everything she’d learned about my mother’s past as if it was some rare opportunity to deepen her understanding of me, of us.

Jacob’s mother is a librarian. Jacob decides after his career as an assistant to the wealthy Mrs. Esther Hamelin comes to an end to enroll in the library science program at Halifax’s Dalhousie University. The topic of his all-important library science paper—ghosts in libraries—mirrors the underlying plot of My Darling Detective: in the journey to adulthood, we are sometimes given the opportunity to explore the ghosts of our physical and psychological past. Jacob Rigolet is a unique, unforgettable man who successfully navigates the shoals of his unexpected past. 

Read Janet Webb's review of The Devil's Triangle by Catherine Coulter & J. T. Ellison!


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Janet Webb aka @JanetETennessee has unpredictable opinions on books. Season ticket holder of the Oakland Athletics baseball team. Social media devotee. Stories on royals and politics catch my eye. Ottawa born. Grew up on the books of Helen MacInnes, Mary Stewart, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Anne Perry … I'm always looking for a great new mystery series.

Read all of Janet Webb's articles for Criminal Element!


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