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… 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.

18 thoughts on “Book review: Murder at the Mendel by Gail Bowen

  1. What an interesting sounding book. I like the idea of something that has happened in the past and is yet to be explained. It also sounds like it has good detail on the lives of the 2 female characters, Clearly a find!

    • Yes, I very much like the two I’ve read so far – thanks are due to Bill for encouraging me to try this author.

  2. I’m reading Gail Bowen’s Kaleidoscope, her latest book. I’m enjoying it. The author does write with a light touch, as you say, but she deals with some social issues, too. I can’t wait to see what’s coming next.
    I will put Murder at the Mendel on my TBR Alps list. It sounds like a good one.
    Although my library doesn’t carry a lot of this author’s books, I just discovered that Abe Books carries most of them and at reasonable prices, so I’ll avail myself of their online bookstore.
    I like Joanne Kilbourn and I’ll be reading more of her adventures.
    These seem like perfect books for vacations — real and virtual — and for distraction and sheer escapism. When one wants to mix it up with various genres, reading a hard-core police procedural, and then sampling lighter fare, this seems to fit the bill.

    • Agreed, Kathy. These books are not published in the UK but I was lucky to find a cheap edition of the first three books in one volume. I can see that I am going to be following your lead after I’ve read the third one in the omnibus.

  3. I liked the one book in this series I read (a later one than the two you’ve gotten to) and do keep an eye out for more but they’re not readily available here either and I’ve stopped using bookmooch which used to be quite good for Canadian books. I too was tickled by the “Gorillas or not” line – in my limited travels through Canada I would concur – they are the politest, nicest people you could find

  4. Also, just a point of information: Better World Books, based in Indiana, carries loads of used books and their website says “Free Shipping Worldwide.” They donate slews of books to literacy programs and libraries. Their website has information and so does Wikipedia. I ordered some books from them recently and for each book I ordered, BWB sent a book to a literacy program. That is a feature which I like and I know you donate to global book aid organizations.
    I learned about them from a blogger here and was intrigued when I did a search at the BWB website, looking for Diana Norman’s historical fiction, other than those written as Ariana Franklin, and found several titles.

  5. Maxine – An excellent review! I am admittedly biased because I like this series very much and I think Gail Bowen is quite talented. But I agree that this is a terrific read. One of the things I’m glad you brought up is the way that Bowen uses a light touch while still acknowledging the sadness in both Jo Kilbourn’s life and that of the main plot. It’s not easy to do that. I like the sense of place in the series, too.

    • Thanks, Margot. I agree that this lifts it out of “cosy”, which is not really my cup of tea.

  6. Pingback: Murder at the Mendel by Gail Bowen | Petrona Book Reviews archive

  7. I’m a big fan of Gail Bowen, and I love the fact that she’s written quite a few, it’s so annoying when you discover a new writer and find there’s only a couple of books. I’ve managed to get 2nd-hand copies from various places, and also nobbled a friend who was visiting Canada and told her to get me the recent ones. I love the character of Joanna Kilbourn, and also the details, she’s always telling you what they cooked for dinner and so on, but it’s never boring. Thanks for a great review, reminding me that I should read another by her. She’ll be great for my blog, Clothes in Books because she’s always telling you what people are wearing, too!

    • Thanks for the comment, and I agree totally. Once I’ve finished this omnibus edition, I’ll no doubt be struggling to find the rest of the series. ….will be trusting the usually reliable Amazon marketplace sellers.

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