Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Not all interesting mystery series have the worldwide fame of Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander series or Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series. In a way, series that are less well-known can be even more appealing since there’s a better chance that readers haven’t “met” the characters before and will find something new to like. So today, I thought I’d shine the spotlight on Charlotte MacLeod’s Sarah Kelling/Max Bittersohn series, which perhaps doesn’t have the huge following that some other series do, but is an interesting and (I think) well-done series. Today, let’s take a closer look at The Withdrawing Room, the second in that series.
Sarah Kelling is a young widow from a “Boston Brahmin” family. Her husband Alexander’s death has left Sarah in financial difficulties, so she makes the painful decision to open the family’s Beacon Hill brownstone to boarders. Her family is against the idea, but Sarah wants to make a go of it, since she would far rather do that than live as a parasite among the better-off members of her family. So with help from some family friends and relations, she begins to carefully choose the people to whom she’ll open her boarding house. The idea is for it to be a first-class boarding house with first-class roomers. In a short time, she’s got a group of people she thinks will be suitable tenants.
One of those tenants is Barnwell “Barney” Augustus Quiffen. Unfortunately, Quiffen turns out to be an extremely annoying person who delights in finding things to complain about and writing long, impassioned letters about his complaints to newspapers and local authorities. He also has a long list of complaints and requests about the boarding house service and in general, makes just about everyone’s life miserable, including Sarah Kelling’s. As though his endless complaints weren’t enough, Quiffen is far too interested in everyone’s business for comfort. Then one day, he’s killed in what looks like a terrible accident when it appears he falls under a subway train. No-one at the boarding house is exactly sorry to hear of his death, and Sarah is hoping that life there will get back to normal soon. The next day, though, she gets a visit from Miss Mary Smith, an elderly homeless woman who claims that she saw someone push Quiffen under the train. So against her better judgement, Sarah has to get more involved in Quiffen’s death, especially when the police begin to visit the boarding house and ask questions. Sarah’s not sure whom to turn to; she wants to keep her boarding house going, and unless the murder is solved quickly and discreetly, she won’t. Besides, if one of the boarders is responsible for Quiffen’s death, Sarah wants to know. So she asks for help from her friend Max Bittersohn, a somewhat mysterious art dealer. Bittersohn moves into the boarding house and in his own way, begins to find out what he can. So does Sarah.
The two are just beginning to ask questions when Sarah takes in a new roomer William Hartler. Hartler is a rather odd and eccentric man, but he’s much more pleasant than Mr. Quiffen was, so she’s happy to welcome him into the boarding house. Then one evening, William Hartler is murdered in what looks at first like a mugging gone wrong. Now it seems that something sinister might be going on at the boarding house, and Sarah is desperate to find out what’s happened. So she and Bittersohn work even harder to find out what happened to the two boarders. In the end, they find out who killed both Quiffen and Hartler, and how their deaths are related.
One of the really important elements in this story is the cast of characters. Sarah Kelling is an appealing protagonist. She’s smart and strong and we feel for her as she struggles to deal with life as a widow and with her somewhat meddlesome relations. And yet, she’s by no means perfect. She makes mistakes as she begins her boarding house, and her judgement isn’t always clear. She’s got some solid depth and it’s not hard to cheer for her. We know less about Max Bittersohn, although we find out that he’s an art dealer with a “side job” that no-one knows much about. Some say he’s a Federal secret agent, but no-one knows for sure. Still, he’s an appealing character and it’s easy to see that he’s got both strength of character and compassion (not to mention very polished manners). He and Sarah Kelling make a solid team and in later novels, we see how their relationship develops.
The other characters in the boarding house are quirky and interesting without being ridiculous. There’s Theonia Sorprende, a middle-aged, upper-class woman with refined manners, a dry sense of humour, an attractive appearance – and an interesting secret. There’s Jennifer LaValliere, a student at Katherine Gibbs Secretarial School, who’s only too happy to be out from under the noses of her over-protective parents. Eugene Porter-Smith is an accountant who’s fascinated by Mrs. Sorprende, which does not exactly thrill Jennifer LaValiere. And then there’s Professor Oscar Ormsby, who teachers aerodynamics at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and does his best to eat Sarah Kelling out of house and home. All of the boarders have their little quirks and eccentricities, and their interactions form an interesting context for the mystery. The boarding house staff members also have their quirks. Mariposa Fergus serves as the maid and also does some of the cooking. She’s shrewd and sassy and fusses over Sarah when Sarah lets her. Mariposa’s lover Charles C. Charles (yes, that’s really his name) is an out-of-work actor who works days at a factory and takes on the role of butler in the evening. Both of them are solid characters and loyal to Sarah.
The boarding house context also gives us the chance to go “behind the scenes” and see the inner workings of a well-run boarding house. Sarah Kelling may not be perfect, but she does try to run a quality rooming house and for the most part, she succeeds. We get to see how she learns to manage house rules, meals, housekeeping, the mortgage and other bills, and the occasional disagreements that crop up. As she gets better and better at those details, we also see how Sarah grows into her role.
There’s a refreshing sense of humour in this novel, too. For instance, after Hartler dies, his sister Joanna arrives to claim and sort out his things. She proves to be quite a nuisance in her own way, but Sarah doesn’t think she’ll stay long:
“If Mr. Porter-Smith’s dinner jacket and Miss LaValliere’s hairdo didn’t drive the woman out, Mariposa and Charles, in their own adroit ways, would manage.”
There’s also humour in the way that Sarah Kelling deals with her “well-born” relations, and her somewhat jaundiced views of them:
“She ate a stodgy Christmas dinner with Aunt Appie and Uncle Samuel in Cambridge and a surprisingly riotous New Year’s Eve on Pinckney Street with Uncle Jem, Egbert and Dolph, who got tiddly on champagne and recited all he could remember of ‘Gunga Din,’ which fortunately was not much.’
The mystery in The Withdrawing Room is interesting and believable, and the solution isn’t apparent. But what really keeps the reader’s interest in this novel is the set of characters, the charming boarding house setting, the humour and the personalities of Sarah Kelling and Max Bittersohn. But what’s your view? Have you read The Withdrawing Room? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Tuesday 31 May/Wednesday 1 June – The Stepford Wives – Ira Levin
Monday 6 June/Tuesday 7 June – Still Life – Louise Penny
Monday 13 June/Tuesday 14 June – A Case of Need – Michael Crichton (writing as Jeffrey Hudson)