Howard Norman’s My Darling Detective* is a delight, a blend of noir and family drama set in 1970s Halifax.
Jacob Rigolet works as an art buyer for an eccentric collector in Halifax, attending auctions in London and Amsterdam. But it’s at an auction in his hometown that something very, very strange happens: his mother, a former head librarian who’s been recovering in a “rest hospital” after a nervous breakdown, walks straight up to the photograph on the docket (which depicts the a dead American soldier in Leipzig at the end of the Second World War), and throws a bottle of ink at it.
Police detective Martha Crauchet, Jake’s no-nonsense fiancee, is assigned to the case, which becomes more intriguing as time goes by. Jacob learns, among other things, that he was born in the Halifax library, that his father isn’t who he thought he was, and that his biological father is a suspect in a 1940s murder in case that wasn’t closed. Somehow, Nora links these facts and cases together. Slowly, Martha and her partners, the gruff Tides and Hogdgon, begin to pull the picture into focus. Jacob catalogues the shifts in the story, his straightforward, almost archival accounting of events suggesting his background as a researcher and his desire to keep his shifting life under control.
All of the characters, from Jacob’s particular, meticulous employer to his long-suffering mother to Martha’s partners, are memorable, but I loved Martha best. She has excellent taste in poetry, we learn early on; she keeps Jake’s coffee warm by covering it with a copy of Margaret Atwood’s The Journals of Susanna Moodie** . Martha is one of Mr. Norman’s women who know what they want and don’t mind saying so. She shares quite a bit in common with Leah, the heroine of her favorite radio program, a noir-style detective show set in the 1940s (by way of time travel; as the novel goes on, the radio show and the novel’s plot begin to echo each other); both women are capable, skilled, and deeply in love with men who are looking for answers. My Darling Detective is a story about old family secrets, detective work, and the power of art, but it’s also a gloriously homey vision of a relationship that works. Take this passage:
So many of Martha’s and my declarations of love, bewilderment, moods, and, on rare occasions, doubt, all the human stuff orchestrated by intuition and the desire to keep us honest with each other, took place at her kitchen table.
A wonderful sentence, isn’t it?
Though My Darling Detective includes some of the elements you might expect to find in one of Mr. Norman’s novels—eastern Canada, murder, radio, plainspoken people—it’s a bit more hopeful, I think, noir with a spring in its step and a lilt in its voice. As I said, delightful, and highly recommended.
**(I happen to own a first edition myself, which Margaret Atwood signed at an appearance in Boston, one of the highlights of my literary life.)
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.