In Charlotte MacLeod’s second book in the Sarah Kelling/ MaxBittersohn series, The Withdrawing Room, Sarah Kelling deals with her impoverished circumstances by turning her mansion in Boston’s elite Beacon Hill into a fancy boarding house. With the help of her Cousin Dolph, Uncle Jem, and friends Mariposa and Charles, an actor who has decided to take on the role of butler in exchange for room and board, Sarah prepares the house and contracts with new tenants, all coming with high brow references. To make use of all the space in the mansion, Sarah has rented out even the attic and what used to be the formal withdrawing room, which has been taken by a really grumpy crank who spends all his time writing letters of complaint to every institution he can find a reason to complain about.
Before he has been living with them for even a week, Mr. Quiffen gets hit by the subway, and a bag lady, Miss Mary Smith, visits Sarah to tell Sarah that she witnessed Mr. Quiffen getting pushed under the train, leading Sarah to involve Max Bittersohn, whom she first met in the capacity of his job as an art detective, in looking after Miss Smith’s safety. Since his apartment building is being turned into condominiums, Max needs a new place to live, giving him the perfect excuse to move into the basement of Sarah’s boarding house.
Sarah has no trouble filling the vacancy left by the murder of Mr. Quiffen but soon notices that the friendly new senior citizen has a steady stream of rude people visiting and treating her property with disrespect. Soon, this boarder gets murdered too, leading to all sorts of further intrigue.
The Withdrawing Room continues MacLeod’s gift for character development. Not only are Sarah and Max delightful to follow, but the reintroduction of stuffy Cousin Dolph and bawdy Uncle Jem adds flavor to the book, and I especially enjoyed meeting Miss Mary Smith, the retired department store clerk who supplements her meager social security check with collecting trash to recycle, and elegant Mrs. Sorpende, the mysterious boarder who shows suspicion of Max at the same time he has suspicions of her. I do find it interesting that in both this series and MacLeod’s other series written under her own name, the Peter Shandy/ Helen Marsh series, the woman who most draws the attention of the men around her is very large and voluptuous. In The Luck Runs Out, the second Shandy/Marsh book, Helen’s close friend Ayduna is especially big, but that does not deter any of her many suitors, just as Mrs. Sorpende draws all the men to her without even trying.
The book is available on audio only via cassette. All three books narrated by Sarah Peiffer have not been released on either CD or MP3, which is a shame because Peiffer does a good job of narrating and makes me enjoy her reading.
The plot of The Withdrawing Room was enjoyable, and the humor in the series gave me plenty of pleasure in listening, though later books exhibit even more quirky characters and settings. I give this book five stars!
The Withdrawing Room is available now. To order from Amazon, click the link in the title. You may also find it in your local bookstore or library.