It’s been a while since I’ve picked up a good mystery and The Beggar’s Opera (M) by Peggy Blair drew me in right away with its unique premise and evocative setting. The basic story is a situation that, unfortunately, happens all too often. A tourist gets himself into a scrape in a foreign country. Sadly for Mike Ellis, that country is Cuba which does not enjoy the same human rights privileges as his home country Canada. Add to this situation the fact that Ellis is a police officer himself, on vacation recovering from a traumatic work-related incident at home. The Cuban detective at the crux of the story, Ricardo Ramirez, not only has to conduct his investigation with scarce basic resources, but he also sees the ghosts of the victims of those crimes. The ghosts are polite, respectful spirits who hang about until their murders are resolved. These hallucinations may the result of a dementia-related condition which ultimately killed his grandmother and suggests that he has only a few years left to live.
Mike Ellis is vacationing in Cuba to recover from a police incident that left his partner dead and himself with disfiguring facial scars. He gives money to a Cuban boy, angering his wife and the argument results in his wife leaving Cuba without him and apparently the breakdown of his marriage. The next day the boy’s body is fished out of the harbour, found to have been sexually assaulted and murdered, and all clues point to Ellis’ guilt. According to Cuban law Ramirez has 72 hours to produce enough evidence to indict Ellis or he must be freed. Despite the fact that Ramirez is sincerely motivated to to the right thing, he wonders if it’s ultimately better to frame a guilty man than to let a guilty man go free. Things are looking very bad indeed for Mike Ellis, as he assumes that as a police officer he will not last long in a Cuban prison found guilty of sexually assaulting and murdering a young Cuban boy.
The Beggar’s Opera, the first in a series, is a well-plotted suspenseful story that will draw you in and keep you guessing. In addition to being an absorbing police procedural it portrays contemporary Cuba as a country desperately lacking in resources and basic human freedoms. Ultimately, I found this novel to be on the dark side, not offering easy solutions to a terrible situation. Everyone, detectives, investigators, victims and accused alike must all face their own demons.
This debut novel by Peggy Blair was shortlisted for the Crime Writers Association Debut Dagger Award and was the winner of the 2012 CBC Bookie Award for Best Mystery/Thriller. Prospective writers may be interested in the fact that this novel was rejected 156 times before a chance meeting with Ian Rankin opened the door for Blair.