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Reviews and Such Books

The Woman in Green, Jack Todd (August 2020)

My reading inspiration comes from all sorts of sources. In the case of Jack Todd’s The Woman in -Green, it’s because I follow the author on Twitter. It wasn’t his mystery writing that caught my attention. Rather, as a Montreal Canadiens fan, I find him to be one of the more restrained and well-thought out commenters on the team.

The Woman in Green Cover shot
The cover for The Woman in Green (Amazon photo)

Setting the Action

One Christmas Eve 1913, a young woman shows up on the doorstep of a young doctor. She is Hanna Goss, a young Austrian singer. He has met her once, when he heard her in recital. She arrives panic stricken, and though ill, he offers her protection. The next day he finds out she has been murdered. Apparently, several hours before she showed up on his doorstep.

This is the opening to Jack Todd’s The Woman in Green. The young man, Dr. Maximillian Balsano, is shocked and confused by this turn of events. Was his encounter real, or just a fever dream? Balsano, a protege of Sigmund Freud, currently studying in Montreal under Dr. Percival Hyde, a rival of Freud’s, sets out in search of answers.

Having not eaten in several days he also sets out in search of food. He stumbles across a restaurant owner named Sonia, who after plying him with plenty of food from the Old Country, listens as he pours out his story. Before he leaves, she introduces him to her husband Jem, a policemen.

Following a Tangled Trail

Jem listens to Max’s story, and decides to assist him in finding the person they assume has murdered Hanna. Their leads are few and far between. Hanna’s manager, Herr Mayr, Dr. Hyde and his friend Count Resphigi, along with several thugs, all behave in questionable fashion. Along the way, Max and Jem finds themselves running afoul of officials, and having their enquiries constantly stymied. Someone with power does not want them to discover what happened to Hanna.

In 1914 Max returns to Austria for a few months, intending to return to Canada to take up a post with Doctor Hyde. Of course, WW1 happens and he spends the next five or so years in Austria working with wounded soldiers and carrying a torch for Hanna. While still dealing with the main plot, the middle section is also an interesting reflection on the nature of war and power.

While absent in body, Hanna is never far from Max’s thoughts. Max is in love with her, and dogged in his pursuit of the truth. As he pursues this truth, Max is aided in part by Dr. Freud himself, who sparks some actions in Max that move his actions forward. Slowly, secrets are revealed, only to reveal more mysteries, before the stories dramatic conclusion.

The Woman in Green and The Woman in White

With the main character Max, being a psychiatrist, the book is appropriately based more in conversation than in action. Not that there is any lack of the latter. However, The Woman in Green manages to be a real page turner with the main focus being on dialogue rather than fists and guns.

One thing that caught my attention about the book is that the Amazon blurb states that this story is loosely based on the Wilkie Collin’s book The Woman in White. It’s been many years since I read that book and The Moonstone, but that was enough to get me interested.

Structurally, I find the two stories quite similar. Not just in the plot twists, but the fact that plot is spread out over a number years. The hints of possible supernatural elements to the story. The fact that the respectable facades of certain characters hide depraved secrets. Both novels take up in their themes the ways in which the mental health system, such as it was, is slanted against woman.

Fortunately, at the same time, Todd updates things. The language is much easier to read. Talk of sex and other personal matters is much more straight forward in The Woman in Green. Plus, by focusing on the emerging field of psychoanalysis, it makes for a clearer understanding of the character’s behaviours.

A Food Driven Story

If you are not familiar with my interest in detective fiction, the role of food in detective novels is of particular interest to me. I have written a couple of general posts on the subject.

Cider
Cider, to help the brain cells contemplate various mysteries.

In The Woman in Green meals around the table are an important part of plot development and timeline movement. I like the emphasis on home style meals. Sophie’s seems like a place that I would seek out if I lived in that neighbourhood.

Also, the descriptions of the food are simple and straight forward. Todd isn’t using the dining scenes to display his knowledge of food. Rather he is using the food and meals to draw the reader into the lives of the characters. There is also a thread that emphasizes that food is something to be shared. Shared with friends, and also with those who are in need of a good meal.

Summary

I enjoyed this book an awful lot. It only took me a couple of days to get through it. I wasn’t sure if I would finish it on the second day, but was pretty certain I would stay up late to do so if necessary. I highly recommend adding The Woman in Green to your library.

Having read this, I definitely also want to read Todd’s Desertion in the time of Vietnam. Desertion, is Todd’s personal story of deserting the U.S. Army and coming to Canada during the Vietnam war.

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By Donald McKenzie

Anglican priest, and food blogger. This blog is focused on Food. It will feature reviews of places to eat books, and the odd recipe. I also write about what it means to gather together around food.