“Please don’t tell me where to barge. We can never be friends if you think you can.” [Lane Winslow to Inspector Darling, page 265]
A major highlight of any Lane Winslow mystery is the respectful and oh-so-restrained relationship between Lane and Inspector Darling. Especially, of course, when punctuated by the reactions of Constable Ames, who is the reader stand-in in just begging Lane and Darling to get their act together already! To Ames’, and my, delight, An Old, Cold Grave features a couple steps forward in the romance subplot, and, like Ames, I have my popcorn ready for the next instalment in this relationship.
The dynamic in the dialogue above is fairly common in cozy mystery series, but I think Iona Whishaw handles it particularly well. In this book, as in the first two, she does three things I love:
- Lane is as much a factor in her own rescue as Darling is, to the point that there’s little doubt she’ll save herself even if Darling never comes along.
- Darling acknowledges her competence in this area, his role in providing a supporting hand, and the role his emotions play in his reaction to her “barging off.”
- Lane acknowledges how much his support does help, how “insufferable” she sometimes was with “her constant fits of pique at Darling,” which his behaviour doesn’t merit, and which are at least partially caused by her own frustrations about the limitations society imposes upon women.
The combination of all three leads to some measured and nuanced conversations between the two, which I don’t always see with this dynamic, and just makes me root for them more.
The mystery in this novel is probably my favourite of the three Lane Winslow novels I’ve read so far. It’s a cold case, a death from about 30 years ago, discovered when the Hughes family (sisters Gwen and Mabel, and their octogenarian mother Gladys) find a child’s skeleton in their root cellar. As somber as their discovery is, I have to admit this novel has the funniest opening I’ve ever read in this series, with Gwen and Mabel, both women in their 50s, arguing over chores. I absolutely adore Gwen, Mabel, and Gladys, and their family dynamic, and I’m so glad this mystery gave us a deeper dive into their lives! This mystery also led Gwen to learning quite a bit more about her sister’s past, and while the denouement was handled with great restraint, I like to think that the sisters became a lot closer because of it. And if they ever appear again in future books, I know I’ll look upon them very differently!
Another feature I love in the Lane Winslow mysteries is how much I learn about Canadian history. This investigation into the child’s identity and the circumstances around their death led to some flashback scenes about Home Children. These are orphans in England (or poor children whom police found on the streets without parents) who are sent to Canada presumably to be adopted into better lives. But many were abused, or adopted primarily to be used as cheap / free labour, and this novel interweaves the story of a family of Home Children with the mystery. (The British PM made an official apology to Home Children in 2010.)
The novel fell short for me in two ways. First, the Lane-in-peril subplot, while it was resolved well, felt completely random and unnecessary. Part of it may be how it was handled — we see the situation first from Darling’s perspective, and then get a flurry of backstory from Lane later, which reduces the sense of urgency. But also, I don’t get why the perpetrator would have done it in the first place — they seem to get no benefit from it, and when they speak, even they don’t seem to have their heart in what they’re doing. As a result, this subplot seemed shoehorned in only to deepen the Lane and Darling relationship, and as much as I love the relationship subplot, I dislike how forced this subplot felt. Iona Whishaw could do — and has done — better in making dangerous situations feel organic.
Another, minor, snag for me is the subplot about the runaway teen, which had nothing to do with the central mystery. It was an interesting commentary on the limitations society imposes on women, and a way to show how even the usually-perfect Darling can subconsciously falter in his progressiveness. There was also a scene that somewhat tangentially connected it to the main mystery. But overall, I wish that it had either been integrated more fully into the main mystery, or that this subplot had been more fully integrated with the series characters. As it was, it felt fairly tangential, and while I agree with its main points, it ultimately fell flat for me.
Overall, however, this is by far my favourite of the Lane Winslow series so far. (I’ve also reviewed Book 1 and Book 2.) The Hughes sisters and their mom are fantastic, and I’d love to see more of them. The big reveal was, ultimately, more sad than anything, and while part of me wishes it was happier, I love how complex and human so many of these characters are, and how much Whishaw managed to make me care for them within a single book. And, as always, I’m excited to see Lane and Darling’s relationship progress, and I can’t wait to see what happens next for them!
Thank you to TouchWood Editions for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.