Reviewed by Tonstant Reader
Forty years ago Magdalene Lynton drowned in a slurry. She choked to death as her hands scrabbled for purchase on the smooth concrete walls. A farmhand discovered her bloated body three days later. Or she didn't. Paul Worthington just confessed to her murder.
Forty years ago Magdalene Lynton died in a dirty shed. He smothered her life along with her cries for help and tossed her defiled corpse into a river when he was done. Or he didn't.
As Detective Ngaire Blakes investigates the death, she discovers clues that won't piece together with either version. Gaps, inconsistencies, lies. And forty years have eroded more than memories. Is it possible to uncover the third death of Magdalene Lynton when time has eaten away at the evidence? And will the person responsible let Ngaire live long enough to try?
Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?
While Katherine Hayton is too young and too antipodean (quite literally) to have been a member of the famed Detection Club, she follows the oath faithfully which makes her a winner in this mystery lover’s heart. The Three Deaths of Magdalene Lynton, a classic mystery in the best sense of the word, is the first of what I hope will be a continuing series featuring Ngaire Blakes, a police detective whose compassion is matched only by her doggedness.
The story begins with a cadaverous man, Paul Worthington, coming into her station to confess to a rape and murder he committed forty years ago. One problem, it was classified as an accidental drowning so evidence is scarce and no one is eager to devote police time and resources to investigate a closed case, particularly if the killer is at death’s door anyway.
However, Ngaire thinks Magdalene deserves the truth and wants to find out what really happened. She is ably assisted by her colleague Deb and her reporter friend Finlay. Their investigation leads them to a religious commune and its neighbors, all dispersed by time and tragedy. There’s Magdalene’s parents Abe and Mary, her boyfriend Billy, now a lawyer whom Paul implicates in Maggie’s death. There’s Isaiah, who was a child with Magdalene on the commune, who seems mysterious, or perhaps a bit unlearned and asocial.Then there is the oddly incommunicative Mikel, a detective Billy hires to investigate the investigation. There are other members of the commune as well and hints of it being less benign than it might seem on the surface.
Ngaire is on limited duty, recovering from a knife attack nearly a year earlier and haunted by fear. This investigation leads her into one of the more harrowing near-death experiences I have read this year. Most of her investigating in the last part of the book is done on her own, off-work due to her injuries and really, in no position to be fetching her mail, let alone tracking murderers.
If you like classic fair-play mysteries, The Three Deaths of Magdalene Lynton is just what you need. It is fair, but not obvious. You may identify the killer before its spelled out on the page, but only if you’re paying attention. The clues are there, the motives are there, and you can draw the right conclusions, but it’s not obvious or heavy-handed, at least I did not think so. This is a solid mystery, avoiding the cute and cozy without being exploitively violent or voyeuristically sexual. You will feel pity for poor Maggie, but you will not feel tainted by reading about what happened.
There is one failing in this book and I have to point it out because I hope there will be a second Ngaire Blakes mystery and I don’t want to see it repeated. Ngaire suffers from very understandable fears that are the result of being attacked and stabbed in the leg and torso, alive only through luck and bad aim. She is also attacked and left to die in this book. She feels incompetent in her work and feels a failure because she is afraid. No matter that she repeatedly faces those fears, puts them aside and goes into dangerous situation, she feels her fear makes her weak. Where is the person telling her that courage is being afraid and still going forward? Where is her awakening that the shame is not in being fearful, it’s it letting fear control your life. She may live with fear, but she is in control.
It’s a peeve of mine that women detectives are so often required to manifest imposter syndrome in some way. Don’t we all love Temperance Brennan (Bones) who would laugh in the face of imposter syndrome. Really, women don’t need insecure women as heroes. So Ngaire, let it go.
Tonstant Reader is an avid booklover and reviewer from Portland, Oregon, who reads widely and enjoys fiction and non-fiction books. She worked for 20 years as an economic and social justice activist. You can see more of her reviews at her website here.