ONE OF THE mysteries about mystery books is why certain authors and their protagonists become cult figures. In comparison with Elisabeth Bowers's No Forwarding Address, Sue Grafton's wildly popular books are tiresome, and her detective, Kinsey Milhone, appears dumb and superficial next to Bowers's Meg Lacey.
In No Forwarding Address, Bowers has Lacey take on a missing-persons assignment that turns into a murder case to which the police accept the handiest solution. Vicky Fischer, a well-heeled Vancouver housewife, hires Meg to find her sister, Sherry Hovey, who has disappeared with her five-year-old son Mark. Meg soon tracks down Sherry and Mark, but the very next morning Sherry is brutally murdered. The chief suspect, according to the police, is a Black labourer who lives in Sherry's apartment house, but Meg, unconvinced by the evidence against him, persists in her investigation until she catches the real killer.
While stickhandling Meg through her version of this familiar plot, Bowers makes her heroine into a thoroughly realistic person. Very bright, but bothered by worries, doubts, and guilt trips, not to mention supposedly grown-up children, Meg is rather like ourselves. But, of course, she is also beautiful in her way, strong, and wiry of figure, just as we are beneath our formerly young exteriors. In addition, Bowers renders the motivating emotions of the story, racism and nasty family relations, with a subtlety rarely found in popular fictional treatments of hot social issues.
Subtlety is not the long suit of Marion Foster's Legal Tender, although the plot is more convoluted than that of No Forwarding Address. Harriet Fordham Croft is a tall, blonde, beautiful Toronto lawyer, and everything stems from the tangle of cases in which she has defended the downtrodden and rescued the helpless. In fact, her new lover, the petite, dark, beautiful Leslie Taylor, has been one of these cases. Someone is after Harriet; someone has set up Tupper Brack, a hack detective, to lead him, or them, to her. Who? Why? What will he, or they, do to Harriet? And will Leslie and Harriet's office factotum, the devoted Clarence Crossley, be able to decoy Harriet and mislead the villains so that Harriet can save herself and them?
Because erotic and dramatic tension reinforce each other so well, sex and violence are a trusty combination. The love story in Legal Tender is almost as prominent as the crime plot, but besotted gazing, mawkish dialogue, and sex scenes wavering between the coy and the clinical loosen rather than strengthen the book's grip. But its violent side is more expertly crafted. Foster manages the multiple points of view well, although she has not completely mastered the smooth transition from scene to scene that makes thrills cumulative. But the chases and the final blow-up are credible and exciting; Legal Tender is a welcome addition to Canadian mystery fiction.