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Crescent Blues Book ViewsSignet Mystery (Paperback), ISBN 0-451-20949-4

An attractive, independent young-middle-aged female PI with something of a past? Sounds a bit like Sue Grafton's Kinsey Milhone, and the comparisons are sure to be made between Milhone and Sharon Duncan's Scotia MacKinnon, protagonist of The Dead Wives Society.

Book: sharon duncan, dead wives society
The similarities don't stop with the setup. Milhone's adventures (increasingly) take place against a sort of soap opera background woven from the relationships between her supporting characters and indeed from that between Milhone and her estranged family. So do MacKinnon's. Comparisons may be odious, but the echoes of Grafton's work here kept me anticipating one of Milhone's electric one-liners. No such luck.

Ex-cop MacKinnon (three husbands down and a rich boyfriend on call) lives on a boat moored in the San Juan Islands, Washington State. Colorful characters surround her there: the guy on the next boat, Henry; ditzy Zelda, MacKinnon's part time assistant; Abbie, ever looking for a good cause to demonstrate about; and local newspaper editor Jared. Everyone experiences their interpersonal ups and downs, into which they sometimes drag MacKinnon. To add to the mix, MacKinnon's mother, elderly hippie Jewel Moon, arrives for a stay. She craves a heart-to-heart with MacKinnon about the way she abandoned MacKinnon in infancy. She obviously hopes MacKinnon will decide she's been maybe a bit tough on Mom all these years.

MacKinnon takes on the case of sizzlingly glamorous French-Moroccan medic Chantal Rousseau, freshly arrived in town with her aged, full-Moroccan mother. Forbes Cameron, who briefly married Rousseau, swindled the doctor big time. Rousseau wants at least her mother's jewelry back. Placing Cameron's own family jewels in a blender qualifies as an eagerly sought optional bonus. As MacKinnon digs, she discovers Cameron, under various aliases, perpetrated similar swindles on a whole string of women, some of whom have been -- and are still being -- bumped off.

But that's not all. Cameron turns out to be a rogue MI6 agent who a couple of years ago turned murderously traitorous. Now on the run, Cameron must contend with ex-colleague Michael Farraday, dispatched to terminate him. Even so, Cameron finds time to take aim on another rich female victim. But who?

Implausibilities leap forth. Cameron knows his most recent ex remains in the neighborhood, but nonetheless he plans a high-profile celebrity marriage in the locality. All his aliases share the same initials, FWC, a habit an MI6 agent might perhaps have grown out of. As MacKinnon puzzles over a pair of cufflinks, monogrammed with those initials, that Cameron forgot when ditching Rousseau, she shows them to Zelda on impulse. Zelda just happens to recognize them instantly because she once shared a house with the jeweler who made them. And so on.

Duncan tells an amiable enough tale, but you could hardly call it white-knuckle stuff. Further, the solution to the mystery element -- who's the next unlucky bride? -- proves glaringly obvious to the reader about hundred pages before MacKinnon catches on. In sum, this book seems to cherish no aspirations higher than passing time. One feels Duncan could try harder.

John Grant

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