Book review: Murder at the Mendel by Gail Bowen

Murder at the Mendel
by Gail Bowen
McClelland & Stewart 2004, first published 1991
Joanne Kilbourn #2

Joanne Kilbourn has moved to Saskatoon after the events of Deadly Experiences. Two of her three children are at university there, and she herself has a teaching job in the politics department for a semester while she decides what to do with her life and completes her biography of the former state premier. Jo’s best friend from her childhood, Sally Love, also lives in Saskatoon.

The two girls became estranged after the age of 13 when, in an apparent murder-suicide, Sally’s father died and she and her mother were left gravely ill. Jo has never understood why Sally did not reply to her letters after the tragedy, when Sally left for art school in New York and Jo was left in care of Sally’s mother Nina.

Sally is now Canada’s most renowned contemporary artist. She’s a vividly drawn and attractive if headstrong character, formidably intelligent and sure of herself. She lives for her art, and the action of the book begins when an exhibition of her work is shown at the Mendel gallery. The showpiece is a work that is shocking to many, resulting in demonstrations outside the installation and in various personal attacks on Sally. After she reconciles with her friend, Jo realises how nasty these attacks are, and how unhinged a woman whom Sally has dumped as her business partner. Murder is in the air.

In 200 pages, the author provides the reader with a totally absorbing portrait both of the feminist art scene (and movement) and of daily life in Saskatoon as Jo works, spends time with her family, and helps Sally and her family to deal with the various sinister elements that surround them. The tension is built up admirably underneath this apparently normal surface. The book is not without dry humour, for example when a band of feminists attack a party given in honour of Sally:

They were in the reception area, a dozen of them, wearing…..boots that came to their knees, skintight black pants, bomber jackets, big, toothy, gorilla masks. Two of them were wearing gorilla hands, and the rest wore gloves. Gorillas or not, they were Canadians in an art gallery, so they were behaving themselves, waiting to deal with somebody in authority.

Although I worked out the bones of the plot very early on, the tale is extremely well told. The various characters surrounding Sally are bought to life in accurate vignettes. Sally herself is the kind of woman who evokes extreme reactions, but she’s a person I liked a lot from her first entrance in this novel. Although the author writes with a light touch, there is always a sense of sadness and loss underlying the brisk story – both Jo’s grief for her husband (who died two years ago) and the tragedy underlying the central crime plot, which is eventually revealed.

I bought my copy of this book.

Bill Selnes’s posts about Gail Bowen, including reviews of some of her books, Q/A and profile.

Books in Canada: profile of the author and her books, including this one.

Author’s website, including the Joanne Kilbourn mysteries in reading order.

My review of Deadly Appearances, the first book in this series.