Cathy Pegau’s second Charlotte Brody historical murder mystery, Borrowing Death, is set between two colossal mistakes: the Great War and the enacting and enforcing of American Prohibition. While the Great War remains a definitive Canadian event, Prohibition figures prominently in the social rifts and conflicts of Pegau’s early-twentieth-century-Alaska-set novel. But Pegau’s journalist-amateur-sleuth heroine, Charlotte Brody, embodies an equally important historical moment. As Charlotte says, she’s not as interested in the 18th Amendment as she is in the 19th.
Charlotte is an independent, idealistic young woman, working as a journalist, deeply committed to causes near and dear to her, women’s suffrage and rights. Though only in her early twenties, Charlotte has done some living. She travelled from afar to the frontier town of Cordova. In the series’s first book, we learn Charlotte survived a fraught love affair. Her relationship with former lover Richard left her with a sour view of men and relationships and a diminished sense of her ability to understand and judge people. When she refused to follow her lover’s demand for a conventional end to their romance, that is, marriage, children, and Charlotte as home-maker, wife, mother, he turned on her. As a result, Charlotte made painful, irrevocable decisions, one that haunts her still. Moving to Cordova, reuniting with her brother Michael, is how Charlotte will lay the past to rest. Her writing and sleuthing, curiosity and intelligence, restore Charlotte’s faith in herself. If she can only find some way to restore her faith in romantic love.
When we meet Charlotte in Borrowing Death, she’s been in Cordova for three months. She loves working as a journalist for the Cordova Daily Times, and also writes for her best friend’s, Kit’s, magazine back home, The Modern Woman Review. (Charlotte’s life as a working woman is another aspect of the series that Miss Bates enjoys.) Charlotte has forged friendships, especially with local brothel owner Brigit, and solved a murder with, and kissed, Deputy Marshal James Eddignton. She rents a comfortable little house, participates in local social and cultural events, and feels renewed and strengthened. Though she is occasionally melancholic about her past, she’s a positive, purposeful young woman.
Miss Bates likes Charlotte a whole lot. Pegau has created a nuanced character, with a sympathetic backstory, not atypical of the time. Deep-seated lingering prejudices and the antagonism of the Women’s Temperance League thwart Charlotte’s journalistic efforts. Her daily routines and endeavours pale, however, when Charlotte’s innate curiosity and thirst for justice lead her to become embroiled in another local murder case, the death of hardware store-owner Lyle Fiske. As Charlotte and James work together and apart to solve Fiske’s murder, what emerges is what P.D. James’s police detective Adam Dalgliesh said of every crime, that it can be understood and solved on the basis of “love, lust, or lucre.” In one way or another, all three figure in Charlotte and James’s solution to the crime.
Pegau has a great knack for rendering characters sympathetically. They’re not idealized if heroic, nor caricatured if villainous. But Miss Bates has never been particularly interested in the “puzzle” aspect of crime fiction. “Whodunnit” is not half as compelling as the interplay between a good crime-solving team, especially when romance lingers, flares, and simmers between the two. This is what Miss Bates most enjoys about Pegau’s series and what makes her anticipate the next book, Murder On Location. Charlotte and James’s exchanges are a wonderful counterpoint between Charlotte’s psychological acumen, intelligence, curiosity, and thirst for social justice and James’s decency, respect for the rule of law, and calm, reasonable manner. Pegau has created them equal and created them slow-burning romantic leads. Miss Bates offers a snippet of evidence:
Charlotte stared at him, a glimmer of hurt in her chest. “You knew? Why didn’t you tell me? What if the robbery and murder were related to that and not just random chance?”
“Because I can’t share everything I know about every case, Charlotte. I wouldn’t be doing my job if I spilled all my inside knowledge, would I?”
He had a point, but it still rankled a bit that he’d held back.
“The question is,” he said, “how do you know about it?”
She smiled sweetly at him. “Now, James, I can’t share anonymous sources, can I? My job relies upon a certain amount of trust and discretion.”
His lips pressed together and he narrowed his eyes. “Funny … “
Charlotte and James’s give-and-take is a great sampling of their commitment to professional ethics and the delight they take in pitting their sleuthing skills against their genuine liking for each other. The fun lies not only in the words exchanged, but their body language, Charlotte’s “sweet smile” that speaks comeuppance and James’s “narrowed eyes” that acknowledges her wit. Miss Bates anticipates the further adventures of Charlotte, James, and the well-drawn secondary characters who are Cordova’s denizens, against a historical background of women’s suffrage, Prohibition, and glorious descriptions of weather and landscape. As a Canadian, Miss Bates’s loves Pegau’s wintry setting!
With her reading companion, Miss Austen, Miss Bates finds that Cathy Pegau’s Borrowing Death is the product of “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Cathy Pegau’s Borrowing Death is published by Kensington. It was released in June 2016 and may be found at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates received an ARC from the author.