The Beggar’s Opera

By Peggy Blair

In recent years the mystery genre’s DNA has been evolving away from the classic or golden age whodunnit into the modern police procedural. More traditional mysteries are now condescendingly referred to as “cozies” (the latest from P. D. James even returns to Jane Austen-land!), while on television detective shows like Columbo and Murder, She Wrote have been superseded by the various iterations of CSI and Law and Order. It seems the science of forensics has finally trumped even Hercule Poirot’s “little grey cells,” and crime-solving has been relegated to the mundane business of lab work and getting the proper authorization for wire taps.

Peggy Blair’s debut, billed as the first in a series starring Inspector Ricardo Ramirez of Havana’s Major Crimes Unit, has a foot in both of these worlds. Ramirez is introduced as an old school detective with a special gift: the victims of murder appear to him as ghosts, following him around until he solves their cases. Unfortunately this sixth sense is of limited use, as the ghosts can’t talk and are only able to offer the odd, rather vague clue to help Ramirez with his investigations.

Blair’s Cuba may seem a backward place, with Santerian spirits, limited Internet access, and even a shortage of pencils, but it does have good doctors, and Ramirez is aided by a skilled pathologist named Hector Apiro. Hector may be a dwarf (he performs autopsies standing on a stepladder) but he reliably provides all of the technical information that mystery novels now require.

What gets the ball rolling is the discovery a young boy’s body floating in the sea. A Canadian policeman visiting Havana may or may not have been involved in the boy’s death; having drunk himself to blackout the night before he has no memory of anything. A trail of circumstantial evidence, however, strongly links him to the case, which forces him to call home for help.

Help arrives in the form of the novel’s real hero-detective, Celia Jones. Jones represents the New School coming to help out the Old, armed with a laptop and the ability to use state-of-the-art investigation techniques like Google. At first it may seem suspicious that she does so much of the work, almost relegating Ramirez to a secondary, supporting role in the investigation. Note, however, that Celia is an Ottawa lawyer. Author Peggy Blair is also an Ottawa lawyer. The plot thickens.

Old school or new, the essential test for any mystery novel is that it read downhill, forcing us to keep turning the pages faster as we come to the end. The Beggar’s Opera does this, and adds quirky leads, an exotic setting, and not one, not two, but at least three twists at the end (saving the best for last). It’s a great start for the series, and one only hopes that when we see Inspector Ramirez again he’ll be given a bit more to do.

Review first published online December 10, 2012.

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