CM . . .
. Volume XXIII Number 18. . . .January 20, 2017
The first sentence of a novel is often telling. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, reverberates in the collective consciousness and stays with us. What do we say, then, about the first sentence of John Lawrence Reynolds’ A Murder for Max: “Police Chief Maxine Benson had to prove something to the people of Port Ainslie.” It is to the point and rather artless; its only novelty is that it reveals that the police chief is female. The novel continues in this vein for its entirety: matter of fact, mildly intriguing, and faintly feminist. The trope of female detective has been explored by writers such as Agatha Christie (Miss Marple), Edward Stratemeyer (Nancy Drew), and Dorothy Sayers (Harriet Vane), but, as a figure, it is not totally exhausted. Furthermore, the fact that the trope is updated and made Canadian is welcome.
A Murder for Max is published by Orca Books, a house that does a wonderful job at publishing novels for reluctant teen readers. Although the novel is not aimed at these readers -- it claims to be for readers from 16 up -- high school librarians should find that many of their readers will take to it. The story is easy to follow, the vocabulary simple, and the characters seem real. In fact, the plucky Maxime may even be thought of as a role model. In short, although the novel is not particularly artistic, it will “hook” readers and not let them off the hook until they discover “who done it.” Like a small bass that struggles to the very end, the novel will provide a short but action-packed experience.
The plot of the novel is as follows: Maxine, 43, moves from Toronto to small-town Port Ainslie to become police chief. This sleepy little town has had little happen until one of its citizens, Billy Ray Edwards, is murdered. Reynolds does a good job at making sure every one of his chapters ends with a mini-cliff hanger, like serial novelists before him. The novelist is experienced at writing mysteries, and he clearly understands his audience. Even when he relies on stock characterization (such as portraying the murder victim as a stereotypical “bad boy”), it is obvious that Reynolds has chosen to do so.
When Billy Ray is shot, there is a long list of suspects. As with most detective fiction, the reader is left guessing until the very end. Each of the six suspects (Ben Black, Seth Torsney, Brenda Karp, Ivan Curic, Ryan Kelly, and Sam Little) has a motive, and each is also a believable character. There is enough intermeshing of the characters (the victim, for example, has a previous girlfriend who is a suspect, as well as her new boyfriend) that the reader is interested in understanding them all. However, with that being said, one may wish to question the inventiveness of the characters’ names…….Ben Black? Sam Little? Come on!
Minor quibbles aside, A Murder for Max is strong enough that readers will hope that there will be a long line of Maxine Benson mysteries. Both adults and teens would be happy if that were the case.
Adam C. Hunt is teacher-librarian and Head of Social Science at Centennial Secondary School in Belleville, ON.
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