- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 9, 2006

THE ACCOMPLICE

By Elizabeth Ironside

Felony Mayhem, $14.95, 355 pages

REVIEWED BY MURIEL DOBBIN

Capturing the attention of a reader with your first words is one of the talents that has launched Elizabeth Ironside as an accomplished mystery writer.

Take her last book “Death in the Garden,” which kicks off with the riveting sentence: “Today at half past two in the afternoon I was acquitted of the murder of my husband.” Or her current one, “The Accomplice,” which begins, “She had made all the arrangements for her own funeral.”

Having set the hook in her targets, Ms. Ironside carries through her themes with plots smoothly and intricately woven. She even saves an oblique and subtle twist for the denouement in both books. It is rare to find a mystery writer who combines subtlety with a sophisticated literary style.

In real life Ms. Ironside is Lady Catherine Manning, wife of Sir David Manning, British Ambassador to the United States, but she needs no support system to attract readers. She obviously has drawn on her diplomatic travels in India, Russia, Poland, Israel and France for research and inspiration in her writing and she demonstrates ability to move seamlessly from the elegant surrealism of the era between the two world wars in England to the horrifying brutality that marked the Russian revolution and its aftermath in Eastern Europe.

In both books her characters are brought to life and death with the precision born of doing historical homework combined with a penetrating insight into time and place. She is capable of evoking the psychological climate of gracious homes and the wreckage of wartime hovels.

A child’s corpse in the rose garden of a stately home sets the scene for her second book, and she writes with poignancy of the discovery of the body: “On the day Asshe House changed hands, when Zita brushed against the flowers and pierced the grass with her heels, she released no more than a fall of petals on the lawn and a faint scent into the air. No odour of the past or taint of death touched her nostrils.”

Yet as the plot progresses, the murder, discovered in the idyllic English village that has become familiar to readers worldwide as the unlikely haven for domestic mayhem, turns out to be secondary to a scenario of refugee life in Eastern Europe which in turn proves to be the key to a second death in England.

Reluctantly involved in the investigation is attorney Zita Daunsey, a woman with problems to spare. She is coping with a mentally and physically afflicted child whose birth destroyed her marriage, and she is still recovering from the pain of her husband’s abandonment. The death of her Russian friend Yevgenia at first appears to fit the cliche “a merciful release.”

Yet Zita’s creeping conviction that something in the pattern of events is flawed drives her as the pieces of Yevgenia’s terrible past fall inexorably into place and track the truth about how she died.

Expertly drawn is the character of the young Russian immigrant Xenia, whose resentment of the lifestyle of the English friends who virtually adopt her rapidly takes on a sinister cast. Her English hostess notes “a faint odour of hostility” emanating from Xenia. The author portrays that odor as “the vapour escaping from a volcano” and suggests that Xenia’s alienation from everything around her was made more distressing “because she had no loyalty to what she had left behind.”

Xenia’s capacity for dishonesty and deceit reaches its climax in her relationship with the deeply wounded Yevgenia, a victim of Communist savagery, and provides the young woman with an opportunity that takes her into a deeper darkness.

In the end, Zita is faced with the choice of fighting the past or becoming its accomplice by avoiding what she has come to believe is the truth. She is haunted by the admonition of a veteran police superintendent with whom she has developed an odd partnership in the solving of the case.

“If you do nothing about it, you’re sharing in the crime. You’re an accomplice,” he warns her. Finally, she realizes she cannot live with not knowing.

True to form, the author ties her last twist in the tale by leaving a vital clue in the hands of a child who can communicate only with the aid of mechanical voices. Ms. Ironside does not disappoint.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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