Sleuthing Buddhist butler. (Hijinx ensue.)

A Meditation on Murder 
by Susan Juby

Toronto: HarperCollins Canada, 2024
$19.99 / 9781443469524

Reviewed by Trish Bowering

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Imagine this: a thirty-something Buddhist nun decides to attend one of the most preeminent butler schools in North America, and upon graduation finds herself placed in situations that just happen to be rife with mystery and mayhem. She must balance mindfulness with murder investigations, all the while ensuring her clients have impeccable butlering service. Cue the general hilarity and some level-headed compassion.

If this sounds like an odd mix, it really is. If it sounds like something that appeals, I think you’re going to love it. I did! 

Vancouver Island author Susan Juby has given the world a new amateur sleuth in former Buddhist nun turned butler-extraordinaire Helen Thorpe. A Meditation on Murder is Book Two of the series, though it can be read as a standalone. Book One, Mindful of Murder, introduced Helen and a wonderful cast of characters who helped her solve a murder at a meditation retreat off the coast of British Columbia. 

Now two years later, Helen is butlering for a very wealthy West Vancouver couple, Dr. and Mr. Levine, who are also of a spiritual bent: “Bunny Levine had ineffable grace, a generous heart, and a slightly hedonistic quality kept in check by her rigorous training as a surgeon and her devotion to the easier parts of Buddhism.” 

Juby has a knack for introducing a hilarious yet gently mocking description of the privilege of the ultra-rich. It’s almost laugh out loud as Helen tries to negotiate how to feed a demanding guest very soon after the Levines’ five-day silent meditation retreat ends—

There was some discussion about the propriety of serving meat so soon after the retreat, but they decided to offer their guest what he seemed to require. 

“Can we serve him a chicken that has died of natural causes?” asked Dr. Levine. 

…Helen was a life-long vegetarian, but even she hoped they wouldn’t decide to serve a bird that had been partially eaten by a fox or run over by a tractor, and she was relieved when Chef had sourced one apparently so high-strung that it had died of fright during a thunderstorm.

It is with this sense of privilege that the Levines decide to offer Helen’s services on loan to another uber-rich family during their one month absence. Helen chafes a bit but approaches the situation with equanimity and the desire to be of service to Cartier Hightower, a troubled young woman and daughter of insufferable shipping empire magnate Archie Hightower. 

Following her mother’s death she’s given life meaning by joining an internet influencer collective called the Deep State, which gets up to all sorts of clickbait hijinks. But not all is Likes and Comments for this group, as members of the collective begin dying. Helen is tasked with saving Cartier from social media, and from a murderer. 

There are a couple of facets that make this book a truly fun read–aside from the sheer improbability of a Buddhist butler sleuth.

Author Susan Juby (photo: Delgado Photography)

Juby has offered a cosy mystery with a unique vibe. There’s the murder mystery aspect with its menacing undertones, but this is clearly a comedic book, with delightful humour on every page. It kept me constantly amused, and I chuckled aloud more than a few times. Then, without warning, Juby delivers a gut punch of serious pathos, building empathy for a character while hitting the reader with Buddhist dharma teaching. When Helen takes Cartier to an isolated ranch to get her away from toxic haters on social media, Cartier initially resists. But the conversation gets real during a hike:

“Do you ever want more attention?” Cartier asked.

Helen considered the question… “No,” she said. “I really don’t.”

She thought also of her teacher, Sayadaw U Nandisara. He had taught her that there were two main kinds of human suffering, one stemming from the desire to exist, which was often expressed as craving and clinging, and the other from the desire not to exist, which turned into avoidance and aversion. Helen had never been suicidal, but sometimes she imagined disappearing and the thought was not upsetting to her. She never wanted to take to her bed, but she had sometimes wanted to disappear altogether.

“I think attention might be killing me,” said Cartier. “And I can’t stop trying to get it…”

Juby’s ability to switch easily from biting humour to gentle mocking (not to mention from almost slap-stick comedic action to the contemplation of genuine suffering) kept me on my toes in the best possible way and added an off-kilter enjoyment to this novel.

The characters are well-drawn. I’m a bit in love with Helen and her compassionate common sense. She’s so centred, but even her balance has limits. In Buddhist philosophy, one learns to be attentive to vedana, or “feeling tone,” labelling all experience as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. I was delighted as Helen wandered around the annoying edges of life, calmly labelling her experiences as unpleasant time and again, whether confronted with an entitled boor or a vicious killer.

Helen is an entirely calming presence; her superpowers are mindfulness, listening, and utter composure. Her poise leapt off the page and settled deep into my brain as I read, and when she was on the job, I felt that everything was going to be okay. Cartier says it best amidst a social media crisis:

“Please turn off the internet,” said Cartier, surprising even herself.

Helen nodded, and in that moment, Cartier got the point of Helen. She’d been too distracted to see it before. But now that she felt like she was going to die, she got why people liked Helen. Why they loved her.

Helen was the kind of person who made you feel like even if you were about to die, it would all be okay.

We’re introduced to a bevy of supporting characters, and even when they’re overtly nasty Juby treats them rather kindly, or at least with an attempt at understanding their reasons. Cartier’s partners in the Deep State all have competing motivations and can be callous, and Cartier’s father Archie has endless anger management problems, but Juby avoids black and white characterizations. 

The murder mystery plot moves ahead rather slowly; A Meditation on Murder spends more time with meditation than it does with murder. That was fine with me because I was fully satisfied with Juby taking her time to build an interesting story about the perils of our digital age, juxtaposing online life with Helen’s practice of always being present in the moment. 

I love the stable of characters Juby has taken the time to create. But for those readers more invested in a complex murder mystery, the action doesn’t really get started until about the two-thirds mark, though there are plot elements that develop it throughout. There’s a meditative pace to this mystery; it won’t be rushed.

It all culminates in an appropriately satisfying perilous conclusion with narrowly averted disaster. Along the way we’ve learned lessons about the dangers (and some good bits) of social media; some basic Buddhist philosophy; and the art of being an excellent butler, all while getting steady laughs. I closed the last page of this novel with a sense of deep satisfaction, and I labelled this reading experience as pleasant. I’m already looking forward to the next outing with Helen Thorpe and friends.

*

Trish Bowering

Tricia Bowering lives in Vancouver, where she is immersed in reading, writing and vegetable gardening. She has an undergraduate degree in Psychology from the University of Victoria, and obtained her M.D. from the University of British Columbia. Now retired from her medical practice, she focuses on her love of all things literary. She blogs at TrishTalksBooks.com and reviews on Instagram@trishtalksbooks. [Editor’s note: Trish recently reviewed Myrl Coulter, Christopher Levenson, David Bergen, and Debi Goodwin for BCR.]

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The British Columbia Review

Interim Editors, 2023-25: Trevor Marc Hughes (nonfiction), 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.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

2 comments on “Sleuthing Buddhist butler. (Hijinx ensue.)

  1. I can’t wait to read Susan’s new book. I’m listening to Mindful of Murder I’ve read the book as well but I just love the narrator reading this book. Susan Juby is one of my all time favourite authors.

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