Checking out sequels by two favourite writers

[attach]7191[/attach]The Newcomers, Lily Poritz Miller, Sumach Press, trade paperback $19.95.

When last seen, the Hoffman family of widowed Sara and her children had survived and triumphed — in their way — in a strange new country: post-war, racist South Africa.

We left them, at the end of In a Pale Blue Light, looking forward to a move to another strange new country: the United States.

Toronto writer Lily Poritz Miller’s continuation of that 2010 novel’s story both delights and disappoints.

The Newcomers picks up almost immediately after the end of In a Pale Blue Light but stands on its own without requiring knowledge of what happened earlier in the immigrant saga. Miller goes out of her way to fill in the relevant themes of that earlier venture, some of which do continue to reverberate in this one.

For once again, the Hoffmans are outsiders in a new country. In a twist on the usual immigrant tale though, the discrimination they experience in the small New England city they set up in is not wrought by any Anglo-Saxon majority, rather by their own Jewish community. Sara’s businessman brother, who had arrived in America many years earlier, gains status in the community by posing as the family’s saviour, spreading the false image of them as ignorant and impoverished, relying on his charity to survive.

Libka, the spunky daughter of the previous novel, is again at the centre of the drama, now the victim of an abusive family for whom she babysits and the subject of vicious gossip in the community. While she is courted by rich young men who admire her looks, she grows interested in another outcast: a boy with mental issues.

This is another tale of a family coming together to overcome adversity in difficult circumstances, but this time the battle seems too easily won. The adversity seems to just dissipate in the face of the Hoffmans’ determination. It’s a lovingly detailed, inspirational story without any serious jeopardy, and so it lacks the emotional wallop of its predecessor.

Still, The Newcomers is an enjoyable, engrossing revelation of a time, place and lives we did not know before, for which we can
be grateful.

[attach]7192[/attach]The Dead Scholar, John Moss, Anne McDermid and Associates, paperback $19.95.

In each instalment of the mystery series featuring Miranda Quin and David Morgan, John Moss takes his Toronto detectives into different milieus.

Sometimes it even seems they’re appearing in different genres. In the first two (highly recommended) novels, Quin and Morgan rummaged through old Toronto neighbourhoods and parts of southwestern Ontario to find their murderers.

In the third novel, Reluctant Dead, they went worldwide in what seemed more like an international spy thriller.

Now, back in central Toronto for the The Dead Scholar, they seem positively laid back, engaged in something close to an old-fashioned British cozy — the kind of mystery in which the sleuths are embedded in a small, intimate group of people, one of whom must be the killer. In this case, the group is the Francis Bacon Society of mainly academics. One of their number, a U of T professor, has been found dead in a compromising position on Philosophers Walk, near the University of Toronto campus.

The enjoyment of any Quin and Morgan mystery is in the interaction of the two with each other (witty, raunchy, always supportive) and with the suspects (witty, raunchy, always suspicious). Like no real detectives I’ve ever seen in Toronto, they seem to investigate their cases by socializing with their suspects — and following every personal whim or desire they feel like — without any kind of guidance or strictures from the police force that hires them. Great fun. (Though I wonder if Chief Blair is aware of their shenanigans.)

And somehow in this mystery, it seems everyone is secretly sleeping with or secretly related to everyone else — including with
and to the detectives.

Another reader of this novel told me they found the academically oriented passages too dense. There’s a lot of talk about the significance of Bacon’s work in the 17th century and much confusion over the authenticity of various copies of his publications that play roles in the solving of the mystery. This did not deter me, perhaps because I too am interested in the great man, one of our first scientific philosophers. (Though I thoroughly reject the conspiracy theory raised in this book that he may have written the works of Shakespeare.)

In this episode of Quin and Morgan’s sleuthing, however, everything does go on too long. At 579 pages, the book could stand to have about 20 percent of it excised and the rest tightened up. The editing in general is quite sloppy, with dozens of typos in the print edition.

And, worse for Toronto readers, at one point the impession is given that the Bridle Path is located in Rosedale. Mustn’t mix up
our rival affluent neighbourhoods!

I’m glad to have another entertaining Moss mystery to read, but this one could have been even better.

The Dead Scholar has not been produced by the series’ usual publisher, Dundurn Press. It is available mainly as an e-book, though the print edition can be bought online at Amazon and elsewhere.

The next novel, Blood Wine, is slated to come out, from Dundurn again, next spring.

This marks the return to the Town Crier pages of Eric McMillan’s column, in which he reviews books by Torontonians, about
Toronto or otherwise related to Canada’s most diverse city. For his take on classic literature visit his webiste, featuring The Greatest Literature of All Time, at [url=][/url].