(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

B. M. Gill’s three novels featuring Detective Chief Inspector Tom Maybridge are Victims (published in the United States as Suspect), Seminar for Murder, and The Fifth Rapunzel. The first two are tightly written, well-paced police procedurals with a conventionally crafted whodunit denouement. The Fifth Rapunzel, the third in the series, was less well received but still fit within any description of a Maybridge novel. Gill’s compassion for her characters, both innocent and guilty, and her insight into the emotional forces that drive them set her novels apart from typical police procedurals. The opening paragraph of Victims depicts the killer tenderly arranging Margaret McKendrick’s corpse in a halo of dandelion leaves and admiring his victim’s beauty and the glory of the clear August night. The book’s closing line, “Paul accepted,” depicts the victim’s father as he learns to live with his bereavement and to appreciate the innocent pleasure of a golden autumnal morning. Between these two passages, between the night of the killer and the dawn of restored order, Gill takes her readers into some very dark recesses of the human mind. Some of the kindest and gentlest of the characters prove to have twisted, cruel souls; some of the most loutish and brutal ones have tender, poetic hearts; some of the most noble and worthy ones die.

Gill’s technique is to move her narrative in and out of the minds and lives of the various characters. The reader develops his own sympathies and suspicions as the plot unfolds. The killer is cleverly disguised amid the other characters, and his thoughts and feelings are probed as deeply and clearly as anyone else’s. The reader learns to like him and identifies with his problems, so the final revelation produces not only pleasure but also an emotional pang.

Gill’s greatest skill as a writer lies in her ability to keep her own personality concealed. She unfolds the varying aspects of her characters through their own thoughts and inner soliloquies, without an intrusive author’s voice describing these people and directing the reader’s judgment. Nevertheless, despite the absence of overt authorial didacticism, a strong moral message about personal and civic responsibility emerges.

The character of Tom Maybridge is not employed as a mask for the author. He is merely one of several police officers conducting the investigation into the multiple murders that suddenly plague City Hospital and this nameless English town. Maybridge himself has only a surname in Victims and was probably not originally intended to be a series character. When he reappears in Seminar for Murder, however, he has acquired a first name, a scholarly wife, and a more fleshed-out personality.

Seminar for Murder

In Seminar for Murder, Maybridge accepts an invitation to lecture to a group of eminent mystery writers at the annual Golden Guillotine awards banquet. With his wife in America lecturing on Restoration prose, Maybridge feels compelled to demonstrate his own erudition in the field of police forensics. He is able to expose the methodological errors of virtually every member of the august literary assemblage. His pleasure in his own cleverness is considerably dampened, however, when the association’s president is found dead in bed, a skewer through his throat and a note taped to the headboard: Fault This Murder, Detective Chief Inspector Maybridge, If You Can.

Maybridge finds the murder hard to fault, indeed, as one suspect is found murdered and others provide unshakable alibis. He feels humiliated and also guilty, believing that his caustic demolition of the writers’ plots motivated Sir Godfrey Grant’s murder. Nevertheless, he struggles valiantly with the case. Despite his best efforts, his emotional involvement in the case clouds his judgment so thoroughly that he does not really solve it until several months after the official investigation has ended. Even then, it is the killer’s voluntary confession that forces Maybridge to acknowledge how far off the mark he has been.

Death Drop

Although the Maybridge novels are entertaining and far superior to most others of their genre, they are not Gill’s best efforts. Death Drop, The Twelfth Juror, and especially Nursery Crimes are rare treats for the reader. Filled with violence, passion, twisted love, and noble intentions gone awry, they haunt the mind like Freudian dream images.

Death Drop, Gill’s second novel and the first to be nominated for an Edgar Award, deals with a grieving father’s attempt to discover the truth about his twelve-year-old son’s death during a school outing. Young David Fleming has fallen down the hold of...

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