1852 Ex-lovers, ex-husbands, and murder
The Last Unsuitable Man
By Louise Carson
Winnipeg, MB: Signature Editions, 2022
$17.95 / 9781773241159
Reviewed by Valerie Green
Louise Carson’s 14th book, The Last Unsuitable Man, is a combination of mystery, music, love affairs gone wrong, and slow-paced twists and thrills.
The thing I liked best about it is the division of the book’s parts described in musical terms—Allegro, Andante, Scherzo and Presto (Lively, Moderately Slow, Upbeat and Extremely Fast)—although I did feel that Andante should have been first, as the story begins slowly and then gradually picks up the pace.
These musical expressions set the scene for the story of protagonist Claire Denman, a struggling mystery writer and opera lover, who is hired by an elderly, wealthy woman—Jane Robertson—to assist her in moving her three cats on a flight from Montreal to the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia. The reason Jane needs a travelling companion is because she is only putting one cat in cargo and wants the other two with her on the plane. Since the airline allow only one cat per person, Claire is hired to carry one. As Jane is moving west and will be renting a house on the Sunshine Coast owned by Ben (Claire’s brother) and near to his own property, Claire is more than happy to make the journey with the woman as an excuse to visit her brother and his wife Virginia, both of whom she hasn’t seen for a while.
Unsuitable begins as Claire is driving to Jane’s house where she will stay overnight so they can leave together early next morning to catch the flight from Ottawa to Vancouver. She has left behind her adult daughter, Tamzin, to take care of her own house and cat while she is away.
The first meeting at Jane’s almost empty house is strange on many levels. Jane has been packing up her things in order to sell her house and permanently move out west to a warmer climate and be near her other son, Alexander. At first glance, there are many characters flitting in and out of the story which Claire (and the reader) might find confusing. I constantly back-checked to be clear about who was who.
There is Jane’s son, Edmund, two house cleaners, Lulu and Frizette, who apparently take drugs, but as Jane informs Claire, “they clean all night sometimes. They say it’s the drugs—they don’t do serious drugs—just grass and a bit of meth.” Neither she nor her son appears to be bothered by that. While Edmund has a beer and Jane is constantly asking for another scotch, Claire is left much to her own devices in order to find her room for the night, the bathroom, and something to eat after her already long journey.
As if all this confusion is not enough to contend with, the author adds three more names to the story for the reader to digest. Jane’s troublesome three cats—Daisy, Kookla and Mercury—that make Claire wonder if the whole idea of this trip is a big mistake.
The flight west is stressful and upon arrival the next day in British Columbia, the author meets Jane’s other son, Alexander, who will drive them to their destination. While dozing on the plane, she thinks about the men in her past and wonders if they—“ex-husband, the two serious lovers, and the casuals”are still alive. Mostly, she reflects on the man she called “the Serb,” her married lover. She is thinking specifically about him because on the way to driving them to the airport, Edmund casually mentions Jane’s late husband and referred to him as “the Serb,” although his name is Matija: “How her heart had jolted when Edmund had said those two words in the car. What were the odds?” Could Claire be travelling with the wife of her ex-lover?
Here is where the story really picks up. Unfortunately, Claire’s sister-in-law, Veronica, must leave the next day to take care of her ailing uncle, and Ben will be joining her a few days later, which will leave Claire alone at their house to take care of things. After a very pleasant few days with her brother enable her to become familiar with the house again, she is on her own. And that is when a series of strange happenings begin, only interrupted by the author’s frequent descriptive prose of British Columbia’s scenery that tends to slow down the story.
Claire’s days are filled with writing poetry, watching and identifying the local birds, and exploring the nearby town. But when objects go missing and messes appear in the house that Claire can’t remember making, she begins to believe she is losing her mind. She is particularly afraid after Jane moves into the nearby house, which she is renting from Ben.
The most frightening part of the story for the protagonist is when she realizes whole days have been erased from her memory, most especially when Jane is found dead, followed shortly afterwards by her other son, Edmund’s lifeless body being found on the beach below the house. Claire had no idea that Edmund had come west and had assumed he was still back in Ontario.
Throughout the story, I had rooted for Claire and believed she had been framed for murder, but then the story takes a surprising twist. The ending will surprise you while keeping you guessing. What really happened? Louise Carson’s answer is well worth reading.
Valerie Green was born and educated in England where she studied journalism and law. Her passion was always writing from the moment she first held a pen. After working at the world-famous Foyles Books in London, followed by a brief stint with M15 and legal firms, she moved to Canada in 1968. She married, raised a family, and embarked on a long career as a freelance writer, columnist, and author of over twenty non-fiction historical and true-crime books. Her debut novel Providence has recently been published by Hancock House as the first of The McBride Chronicles, an historical four-generational family saga bringing early BC history alive. Now semi-retired (although writers never really retire!) she enjoys taking short road trips around BC with her husband, watching their two beloved grandsons grow up and, of course, writing. Editor’s note: Valerie Green has recently reviewed books by Winona Kent, Michael Kluckner, Jennifer Manuel, Barbara Smith, Ian Gibbs, Helen Edwards, and Michelle Barker for The British Columbia Review.
The British Columbia Review
Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.