The Birds That Stay by Ann Lambert

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A great new Canadian mystery series! Thank you Second Story Press for sending.

There’s a new, or rather different, Chief Inspector of Homicide in the Sûreté du Québec and his name is Romeo Leduc. Leduc is investigating a homicide of an elderly women found strangled in her secluded home in the Laurentians. Now, this is where any comparison to Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series ends, as Ann Lambert has written an entirely different murder mystery in a very different style. It was one I zipped through rather quickly too!

Who was this unknown and unassuming old woman in the woods named Anna Newman? “Because there was a killer on the loose. Someone who was capable of throttling an old woman to death. Someone who might very well kill again.”

Because my history is a lie. All of it. From the very beginning, a lie. But was it a lie to save my life? Or a lie to kill everything that matters? My mother. My father. My family. Our story.

While reading, I couldn’t help but smile at the many great observations made by the characters and was intrigued to see where this story was going. Marie Russell did not know the elderly woman, but was increasingly finding clues that may link her to Anna Newman more than she would imagine. It was many of Marie’s observations that made me smile, like the ones she makes when she returns to her West-Island neighbourhood in Montreal and remembers every one of her neighbours. She goes on to talk about her childhood in the summer of 1968 – where you were kicked out of the house at 9 a.m., told not to return until lunch and kicked out again until 5 p.m.

“Playing” wasn’t supervised or regulated or medicated…No parents accompanied them….Repeat for two months. That was summer circa 1968. Marie thought of her own children’s highly regulated lives. How did that happen? She wouldn’t dream of letting them do half the things she’d done. What the hell happened to her generation that they were such a bunch of anxious control freaks?

Leduc shared his observations as well, such as how the nicotine patches he was using to help quit smoking caused him to have vivid and horrible nightmares, to how a certain scent had the power to bring back clear memories of his father and childhood.

He could actually smell his father’s aftershave – Old Spice – which he had bought for him with his own saved-up money for Father’s Day. Did quitting smoking restore his sense of smell to such a degree that he could actually smell a memory forty years old?

All Canadian boys were supposed to play hockey. It was something that was never questioned. Romeo’s shameful secret was that he never liked hockey. He didn’t see the point of chasing a puck for hours and hours on end. He didn’t like the hyper-masculine bravado of the coaches and the desperation of the fathers for their sons to be the best. Every Quebecois boy was supposed to dream of playing for the Montreal Canadiens , and every father seemed to think it was a possibility. It was a toxic combination of ambition, testosterone, and vicarious living.

Yet, while I enjoyed many of the observations made through her characters, they weren’t always subtly penned. They would preface an interesting part of the story, but first you had to weed through the vast number of PSAs of the political and social climate in Quebec, Canadian healthcare, climate change, etc. It was distracting and laid on with a heavy hand. Hopefully this smooths itself out in future instalments. For example, Lambert’s viewpoint on Canadian health care is made clear here:

He was a big believer in socialized medicine, which had been the model for health care in Quebec since 1968. But sometimes, he had to admit, that faith was challenged, and today was one of those days. As he made his way to see Ti-Coune, he counted at least a dozen people in beds in the hallway, because no rooms were available. Many were elderly chronic-care patients who could not afford a private nursing home. They were often stuck here in this hellish state for weeks and months at a time when they moved up the waiting list to get into a government-run home. There was no privacy. Their most intimate moments were exposed to anyone walking in off the street. And the sad thing was, most were too sick to care. It was almost enough to make him a convert to a privatized-system – almost. Romeo had also seen what it was like when he had had a brief stint studying in the United States. He had witnessed parents who actually had to choose whether they could afford to take their very sick children to the hospital. It was barbaric. But in Quebec, despite all its many problems, someone like Ti-Coune who had no insurance, and certainly no reliable income, expect welfare, could get excellent care.

Whew! That’s a lot of social political commentary to wade through to get to Leduc’s interview in the hospital with Ti-Coune! ;-)

For me, it’s when the book hits the half-way mark where it really picked up steam. Leduc discovers letters written by Anna Newman in Hungarian. After having them translated, here is where the true story of Ms. Newman’s past comes to light and what could possibly have led to her murder, and how Marie may fit into her past. (I have to say, it was quite shocking to discover the gross number of Nazi criminals Canada harboured after WWII – in line with Argentina and Brazil.)

It’s the start of a new series so there are a few quibbles that will hopefully smooth out as we continue on with Leduc and Russell’s story, but it is one that I’m definitely looking forward to reading what Lambert has in store for us next!