Talk about a timely book! In The Poisoned Pawn, second in Peggy Blair’s Inspector Ramirez series, the Cuban inspector deals with corruption in the Vatican and the injustices faced by aboriginals in Canadian residential schools. Inspector Ramirez is also concerned about his family, with women dying of mysterious causes in Cuba, and Ramirez’s friend and plastic surgeon turned forensic pathologist Hector Apiro restricted by lack of access to the first victim’s records.
Blair’s first book The Beggar’s Opera absolutely captivated me. Inspector Ramirez is a fascinating character — haunted (literally!) by the ghosts of the victims whose crimes he is tasked to solve, worried his sixth sense is a sign of impending death, and above all, an honest man (more or less) who must operate in a corrupt world. While Ramirez sees nothing wrong in lying to suspects during interrogation (“How else will you get them to talk?”), and while he quite openly takes liquor from the evidence room for his staff to enjoy, he also draws the line at taking the cash from the evidence room for himself. He works within the system, yet still maintains a level of idealism in his dogged determination to get to the bottom of the mystery.
I also loved Blair’s depiction of Cuba. Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh and Donna Leon’s Venice reveal the corruption their protagonists have to battle, but in some ways, Blair’s Cuba feels so much more immediate. Perhaps it’s because unlike Rebus, who drowns his sorrow in alcohol, and Brunetti, who is an absolutely upright man, Inspector Ramirez is compromised by and implicated in the corruption. This makes for an interesting dynamic — Ramirez is hardly an anti-hero, but he’s far from a traditional hero either. Rather, he’s all too real, all too human.
Poisoned Pawn takes Inspector Ramirez to Canada, where he must bring home a priest found in possession of pornography depicting Cuban children. Rather than a regular man-hunt, the “hunt” for the priest played out in back-room negotiations and political concessions. Even the more traditional mystery involving the deaths of women was discussed by characters primarily because of how it would affect the tourist trade in Cuba — a much more significant, much less callous concern than it sounds, considering Cubans like Ramirez consider pencils a luxury, and rely heavily on tourism to maintain even the limited rations they are permitted. Despite being set mostly in Canada, Poisoned Pawn delves even deeper into Cuban politics and corruption, and reveals how playing within the system rather than fighting it head-on can score a much bigger victory for the good guys.
The story lends itself well to exploring corruption — the Cuban government probably has nothing on the Vatican when it comes to cover ups and under the table deals. Poisoned Pawn draws parallels between the experiences of Cuban children in Catholic boarding schools and Canadian aboriginal children in residential schools — a well known piece of history made discomforting by the knowledge that still, restitution has not been made.
I didn’t enjoy Poisoned Pawn quite as much as Beggar’s Opera. That may be partly because I read them back to back — after the vibrant, colourful, utterly fascinating Cuba that Blair created in Beggar’s Opera, the no less vibrant but far more familiar Ottawa in Poisoned Pawn felt like a letdown. Beggar’s Opera subverted my expectations and surprised me at almost every turn; in contrast, Poisoned Pawn unfolded pretty much as I expected, at least until the very end. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — rather, a testament to how much Beggar’s Opera raises the bar.
Author Peggy Blair, photo by Alan Dean Photography
On the other hand, I think Poisoned Pawn dealt with much more significant issues. It took the framework laid out by Beggar’s Opera and brought some important points to light. While each book can be enjoyed without the other, Poisoned Pawn feels not so much like a sequel, but rather like the second half of a book Beggar’s Opera started. The best part is, the connecting threads are based on larger contemporary issues rather than series-specific plot points.
I do have a couple of quibbles with the book. One is that a key piece of evidence involves a detail that I believe is scientifically inaccurate. I will keep this spoiler-free, so the only thing I’ll add is that it’s entirely possible that it’s a character’s understanding (or my own, to be fair) that is flawed rather than the detail being inaccurate.
[UPDATE – 6 MARCH 2013 – Peggy has kindly invited me to ask her about this in more detail over an email, and then explained that the character involved would have had no way of knowing the proper science behind the detail. True enough — what I had seen as a scientific inaccuracy instead is an unfortunate reality about a certain group of people’s lack of access to information. Thanks, Peggy, for clarifying!]
Another is that when a character, Jones, tells Ramirez about the police officer assigned to work with him in Canada, Jones says, “His name is Charlie Pike. He’s aboriginal.” Again, to be fair, it’s possible Jones (as opposed to the author) had a valid reason to mention that Pike is aboriginal, but it felt out of place to me. It’s a personal pet peeve when characters in books mention details apropos of nothing, just in order for the author to impose a deeper context upon the scene. From the conversation to that point, the detail seemed to come from nowhere, and I wondered — why would Jones even bring it up in the first place? I understand that Pike being aboriginal plays a significant part later on, but it seemed like the detail would’ve been more naturally introduced when he first appears in the story.
[UPDATE – 6 MARCH 2013 – Check out Peggy’s explanation for this in the comments.]
Overall, however, Poisoned Pawn is a really good book that tackles some very important issues. If you loved Beggar’s Opera, you’ll love seeing the story continue to unfold. If you haven’t read Beggar’s Opera yet, definitely check it out. Amazing book — it literally kept me up all night. Poisoned Pawn is paced a bit slower, yet offers more food for thought. Blair has taken Inspector Ramirez on a fascinating journey so far — I’d love to see what will happen next!
Thanks to Penguin Canada, you can win a copy of both books in the Inspector Ramirez series! Click on the link below to enter on Rafflecopter:
Win a copy of The Poisoned Pawn, as well as a copy of Peggy Blair’s first book, The Beggar’s Opera! (Canada only)
Thanks to Penguin Canada for a copy of this book, as well as a copy of The Beggar’s Opera in exchange for an honest review.