Peggy Blair introduced readers to Inspector Ricardo Ramirez of the Havana Major Crimes Unit last year with her first novel The Beggar's Opera. I loved it (my review) and so did a lot of other folks. It was the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize Reader's Choice Winner, the CBC Bookie Award Winner for Best Canadian Crime Novel and was shortlisted for the Crime Writers' Association Debut Dagger Award!
Needless to say, I was very eager to pick up the second book - The Poisoned Pawn. Did it live up to the first? Absolutely - and more!
I was delighted to find that the book literally picked up where the first book left off. I had thought there was more to the story and other avenues to explore and I was right. In The Poisoned Pawn, Hillary, the wife of Michael Ellis - the Canadian cop suspected of horrific crimes in Cuba - is flying home to Ottawa. She becomes extremely ill on the plane and dies. But what killed her? Ramirez is also headed to Canada - sent by his superiors to pick up a Catholic priest being returned to Cuba to face charges for sex crimes against Cuban children. But, back in Cuba, two other women die in circumstances exactly like Hillary. Ramirez is under pressure from many factions....
There are so many things to like about Blair's novels. For me, the biggest draw is the characters. Ramirez is one of the last few honest cops left on Havana's force (although he does borrow rum from the evidence locker). He's dogged and determined and deftly weaves his way through the political mire of the department and country to achieve results. Ramirez also sees the dead. A victim's ghost will attach itself to Ricardo, until he manages to solve the death. But I enjoy his friend and colleague, pathologist Dr. Hector Apiro just as much. Apiro's mind is brilliant and his personal storyline is both unique and moving.
The setting in Cuba continues to fascinate me. The descriptions of what is not there (soap, meat and more) the limitations placed on the citizens, the city and land, as well as the customs and culture - Voodoo, Santeria and more. In juxtaposition, Ramirez's introduction to Canada at the Ottawa airport is an eye opener.
"They walked past a store with maple-sugar candy; a display of bright art painted on canvas. Another store sold purses brief-cases, scarves and ties. Ramirez already felt overwhelmed. He wondered how Canadians could pick out what to wear each day with so many choices. In Cuba, most stores had only a rack or two of wares; the other shelves were empty. Even in Havana, the bodegas generally had only one brand of canned goods. If they had anything to sell at all."
"Ramirez watched servers do the unthinkable; scrape leftovers into the garbage. It was all he could do to restrain himself from running over to grab their hands, to plead with them to stop the waste."
The title? The Poisoned Pawn is a chess move. "A player places a pawn where it can be easily captured. If the other player takes the bait, his own men are exposed to attack. Bu the ploy is risky, because it can reveal both sides' weaknesses......But few chess games are ever perfect."
Blair's plotting resembles an intricate chess game as well. She has come up with an inventive, multi-layered plot that kept me guessing as to where the next move would be.
Blair also weaves social commentary into her novel, with sharp, pointed and timely commentary, touching on the Catholic Church, Canadian First Nations, and residential schools in both Cuba and Canada. She also includes historical references that had me headed to the Web to investigate further.
The Poisoned Pawn was such a satisfying read on so many levels - I will be eagerly awaiting the next in this series. Read an excerpt of The Poisoned Pawn.
Peggy Blair has been a lawyer for more than thirty years. A recognized expert in Aboriginal law, she also worked as both a criminal defence lawyer and Crown prosecutor. She spent a Christmas in Old Havana, where she watched the bored young policemen along the Malecon, visited Hemingway’s favourite bars, and learned to make a perfect mojito. A former member of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, Blair is named in the Canadian Who’s Who. She lives in Ottawa. You can find Peggy Blair on Twitter.
Check out what other bloggers on The Poisoned Pawn tour thought:
Feb 25- The Literary Word Feb 26- Curled Up With a Good Book and a Cup of Tea
Feb 27- Just a Lil Lost Mar 5 - Serendipitous Readings
Mar 6 - Literary Treats Mar 7 - Thrifty Momma's Brainfood
And thanks to the generosity of Penguin Canada, I have a copy of BOTH books to giveaway to a Canadian reader! Simply leave a comment to be entered. Ends March 23/13.