“Is my husband having an affair with a dead woman?”
That doesn’t seem to be the kind of question that Samuel and Ms. Washburn would tackle as Questions Answered. They typically take on things that require esoteric research, problem solving, and occasionally something that takes some investigation that looks a lot like the kind of thing a P.I. would do. Paranormal investigation is not in their wheelhouse. Samuel is almost reflexively dismissive of the idea — but his associate, Ms. Washburn makes him listen to the prospective client’s story. And then he tries to reflexively dismiss the question, but she won’t let him. While Samuel is convinced there’s nothing supernatural afoot — in fact, the notion is impossible — Ms. Washburn had an experience she can’t explain as a teenager, and refuses to rule it out.
So Samuel let’s her try to come up with an answer to the question and goes back to whatever he was doing before. Before she can get very far into her research, the husband is murdered. Suddenly, the question doesn’t matter as much as the replacement question, “Who killed my husband?” Given Ms. Washburn’s involvement, Samuel gets interested in things again — and the two get involved in a very twisty and complicated mystery. As far as twisty-turny-keep you guessing-mysteries go, this is the best that the duo has encountered and will easily satisfy the most puzzle-obsessed of readers.
What makes this even better — is that given the supernatural/supernatural-adjacent nature of the instigating question, the two are approaching things in very different ways and decide to operate largely separately. Samuel interviews people with assistance of other to drive him places or via the Internet, while Ms. Washburn goes on her own, trying to use Samuel’s methods. This change in modus operandi is refreshing for the characters and the readers, and will lead both Samuel and Ms. Washburn to re-evaluate the way they do business in the future.
The danger level in this one is great — and there are direct threats made against Ms. Washburn and Samuel’s mother and father. Which just makes Samuel more determined to come up with definitive answers quickly. The possible supernatural elements stay with the story throughout and it’s only near the end that all the characters come to the same conclusions about it. This novel features a great puzzle and the solution is very satisfactory — and one I didn’t see coming (but in retrospect makes complete sense).
So much for the mystery — there’s also plenty going on in Samuel’s personal life. On the whole I thought they dealt with it well, but…
I appreciated Samuel pointing out that Asperger’s is no longer a diagnosis, but he still claims it s a shorthand way to describe the way he acts/thinks to others. Which is just a great — and realistic — way to handle the change in status for the label. Let me follow that observation with this one — what frustrated me about this one — and I will admit I was very frustrated at times — is how little Samuel’s mother seemed to understand him. Ms. Washburn, too, but she hasn’t known Samuel as long — or as well as his mother. Dealing with the father who abandoned his family decades ago suddenly reappearing and trying to merge back into his life, would be difficult, complicated and messy. For someone like Samuel? Well, I’m guessing it’d be just as difficult and complicated — but he’d tell you exactly what’s going on with him. And Samuel does so — repeatedly. His father doesn’t believe him; Ms. Washburn seems to try to believe him, but doesn’t; neither does his mother. His mother has been with him every day of his life, devoting more of her life and energy to her son than most parents do — how does she not know him well enough to not double-guess his emotions? If Samuel says he feels “X,” then that’s probably exactly what he feels — unless you force him to look at things another way. Over and over again, his mother shows less awareness of Samuel’s reactions to things than almost anyone. It just didn’t ring true. Samuel’s Asperger’s isn’t new to her (or Samuel) — she shouldn’t act like this.
I should add — the authors know a whole lot more about all of this than I do, and their depictions of this are probably spot-on, I guess they just didn’t convince me about those depictions like they usually do. Also, in the overall-scheme of things, this was a relatively minor quibble and didn’t detract a lot from the pleasure I had in the book — it just took a lot of space to describe.
The trick to Samuel is to give him a little personal growth, a little greater awareness, a little understanding of himself and the emotional needs of others. Yet, only a little bit. I do think this is depicted faster (possibly unrealistically so) in the books — because outside of Nero Wolfe, Sherlock Holmes, or other Golden Age/Golden Age-like characters who don’t grow and evolve by design, we expect some sort of noticeable personal growth in our series characters (particularly the central characters) from book to book. Samuel shouldn’t give us much in that way — his evolution/growth/whatever you want to call it is going to happen on a glacial pace. And over the last three books (I really need to double back and read the first two in the series), he’s taken significant steps forward — so much so it’s like Ms. Washburn has slipped into forgetting that he’s not neurotypical a few times here. That makes sense, because their relationship (in every sense) is pretty new. Thankfully, she catches herself and deliberately attempts to accept that — and generally does – and recognizes when he’s trying. Because we readers get a direct pipeline to Samuel’s thoughts, we might have an easier time with it than she does, but she does a decent job (and his mother usually does, too). It’s a heckuva trick to pull off narratively, and Copperman/Cohen nails it, time and time again.
Another clever mystery, well-told with one of Crime Fiction’s most original and convincingly written characters (not a detective, just someone who can easily be mistaken for one) — this series is a consistently pleasant and rewarding read. The Question of the Dead Mistress is a great jumping-on point, and a welcome-return read for those who’ve spent time with the crew from Questions Answered before.
Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Midnight Ink via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this. My opinions are my own, however.