Book review: A Colder Kind of Death by Gail Bowen


A Colder Kind of Death
by Gail Bowen
McClelland and Stuart, 1994
Joanne Kilbourn #4

I am very much enjoying this Canadian series of novels, which combine a light touch in the writing style with somewhat hard-hitting and deeply emotional themes. Jo Kilbourn is currently a professor of politics at a university in Regina: she’s the widow of the ex-attorney general of her political party and has four children, two of them grown up and one (the youngest) adopted. The first three books introduced Jo and her circle of friends and political associates. Here, however, the mood shifts as Jo has to decide whether to confront the few-years-ago death of her husband, Ian, or whether to continue carrying on her life having put it behind her.

The stimulus for this decision is the death of Ian’s convicted killer, Kevin Tarpley, in a drive-by shooting at the jail where he’s incarcerated – a highly unusual crime. Jo discovers that Tarpley had found God before he died and has sent her some biblical texts. In the aftermath of Tarpley’s death, Jo has to face a very unpleasant person, soon finding that she herself is prime suspect in a crime. Reluctantly, therefore, Jo decides to find out the details of how Ian died, and to talk to the half-dozen friends who were present at the fund-raising party he attended on the fatal night, in an attempt both to achieve closure and to clear her name.

The novel is compelling as Jo both confronts her sadness and finds out more about her husband’s last few hours. There is also a good mystery plot and the usual mixture of domestic details (just the right amount) as Jo has to keep her family’s lives going, juggle her various careers (she’s also a TV panellist), as well as cope with her own mixed feelings. In the end, the questions about how Ian died are resolved, but I was left puzzled as to who was responsible for the two present-day crimes (though a solution can be inferred, there are questions left hanging).

I bought this book.

Read another review of it at: Reactions to Reading.

Posts about Gail Bowen, including reviews of some later books in the series, at: Mysteries and More from Saskatchewan

Author’s website, includes a list of the books of the series, in reading order.

My reviews of the earlier books in the series: Deadly Appearances (#1), Murder at the Mendel (#2) and The Wandering Soul Murders (#3).

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19 thoughts on “Book review: A Colder Kind of Death by Gail Bowen

  1. I’m glad that you’re able to keep up with this series. I have every intention of doing so after I catch up on so many books at my house, at the library, etc. Sometimes life comes along with other plans, but I will definitely get back to Joanne Kilbourn as soon as I can.

    • I recommend it, Kathy, based on the ones I’ve read. I’ve ordered some more 2nd hand Canadian editions so looking forward to reading more.

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    • They are very short and have a very engaging writing style, they slip down a treat! On the other hand, the Julia Spencer-Fleming series plummeted in quality after the first two – I had bought 2nd hand copies of the next 3 (US editions) but could barely finish them – now at charity shops. Interesting comparision, as so far Bowen’s books are very good at keeping the interest going via her depiction of Jo’s career and family life, as well as the crime elements.

  3. I love these books! And, I looked up my notes on this one and I said ‘Highly enjoyable, even though it never properly explains what happened, or even who committed the main murder’ – so I’m in total agreement with you. I like the setting and the details of her life I think, makes up for any shortfall in the plot…

    • Oh I am glad it was not just me being stupid! I thought “eh, I must have missed something” at the end, & re-read the last few chapters, but remained unenlightened! Never mind, I still enjoyed it – the older story of Ian’s death & associated mystery was very sad & well done.

  4. Maxine – I am so happy you’re enjoying this series. Isn’t it terrific? One of the things you’ve mentioned is I think one of favourite things about these novels: they blend so effectively home life and the investigation. Another thing I like is that there’s enough “edge” in the novels to keep the suspense going but at the same time you couldn’t really call these novels gritty. It’s a nice balance Bowen achieves I think. Thanks for a lovely review and a reminder of this fine series.

    • And thanks for your kind comment, Margot. There is something very appealing about this series, which as you write are edgy but not cozy. There is a lot of psychological truth in them, and the details of Saskatchewan politics and environs are fascinating.

  5. Thank you all for your thoughtful and generous comments. I’m now working on Book #15. I decided early on to let Joanne age. Ruth Rendell and I were on a panel together a while back, and she shook her finger at me and told me I’d regret my decision to let Joanne grow older. I don’t think the Baroness is wrong about much, but she was wrong about that. Allowing Joanne to age has given me so much latitude. She’s now married to a very sexy paraplegic lawyer. and every review mentions that Joanne and Zack have great sex even though they’re in their early 50’s! Amazing, huh?

    • Thank you for your kind comment. Much appreciated! I am so glad you are letting Jo age…..I am sure there are plenty of readers like me, who like reading about someone in their own generation! She’s a great character and I look forward to catching up with her, even though the books aren’t all that easy to come by in the UK, I think I’ve managed to track down most.

      • Well done with the tracking so far. If I can help, please let me know. Glorious weather here in Saskatchewan for our Labour Day weekend — that bittersweet holiday between summer and school!

  6. Maxine: I enjoyed your review and all the comments. I find Joanne Kilbourn a very credible character juggling work, family, other interests, dating and sleuthing. I am not as fond of the sleuths who are obsessively solving a crime with nothing else in their lives but detection.

  7. I echo the sentiment about letting Joanne Kilbourn age and deal with that phenomenon. I am so glad that Joanne and Zack are not over the hill in their personal lives, while in their early 50s.

  8. I read one book by Julia Spencer-Fleming and it was okay, but I didn’t put any more on my TBR list and haven’t looked for others. It was all right, but I’m not too thrilled with religion in my crime fiction nor of support for war. The conclusion was a little blown out of proportion. So not my cup of tea.

    • They became very disappointing, Kathy, mainly in terms of the plots but also the interactions between the two main characters became silly and inconsistent. Some of the interesting themes in the first book (eg Claire’s local activities with the various families and people she worked with) were basically dropped.

  9. You’ve reminded me I liked this book very much – though I don’t remember the vague ending – but that’s no surprise as my memory is a sieve these days. One day I will find the time to read more of this series – especially if there’s great middle-age and up sex going on :)

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