In The Bilbao Looking Glass, the fourth book in Charlotte MacLeod’s Sarah Kelling/ Max Bittersohn series, Sarah and Max arrive for their summer stay at Sarah’s country home to discover a beautiful and valuable antique mirror from the sea port of Bilbao, Spain that doesn’t belong to Sarah. As an art expert who makes a living as a detective of stolen artwork, Max suspects something criminal is going on, especially after learning of a recent rash of robberies of art in the area.
Expecting to have a few days to themselves, Sarah and Max, whose romantic relationship has grown since we see them meet in the first book, The Family Vault, are dismayed when Sarah’s newly widowed Aunt Appie suddenly arrives to stay, and her son intends to join her to camp on Sarah’s property with his four criminals-in-training sons. Furthermore, the yacht club set to which Sarah’s first husband belonged and which never even bothered to speak to Sarah when Alexander was still alive seems intent on sucking her into their clique, especially when, to their dismay, they learn that Sarah has been involved romantically with a Jew, someone most decidedly not suitable for a person of their class. Everyone, including Aunt Appie, who usually cannot even recognize the bad in someone, wants to break up this couple, who gets engaged early in the book.
Then word arrives that the home which Sarah and Max visited the day before has been burgled of its art but not other valuables and the companion of the owner ruthlessly murdered with an ax. Rumors start to spread at the suspicious timing of Max’s visit to the house the day before, so when, at the gathering after the funeral, the owner of the house suddenly dies of nicotine poisoning, the men of the yacht club pounce on Max, trussing him up with their belts in a “citizens’ arrest.” It is up to Sarah, Max, and Max’s lawyer Uncle Jake to find the real culprit and clear Max’s good name, so he can marry Sarah.
The Bilbao Looking Glass contains less of the silliness of the previous book, The Palace Guard, but it is still a fun read. I loved seeing the relationship bloom between Sarah and Max. Though not usually one for social commentary, MacLeod gives some strong demonstrations of social discrimination. First, some members of the yacht club show elements of antisemitism against Max, and all the members speak disparagingly of Max for being the son of a “laborer” and the brother-in-law of the owner of the local gas station and garage. Second, some members of Max’s family do not welcome his impending marriage to the non-Jewish Sarah. While his sister and uncle do their best to make Sarah comfortable, it is also clear that they foresee trouble with other members of their family, in particular Max’s mother. In fact, Miriam, Max’s sister, shows much more concern about breaking the news of the engagement to her mother than about telling her that Max has been arrested for murder. The parallel between the two sets of people in showing discrimination works really well in the book.
MacLeod’s writing is especially strong in its development of the characters. Along with seeing the depth in Sarah and Max, we enjoy meeting strange Aunt Appie and her son, who believes against disciplining his hyena-like sons. Later we meet his wife, Vera, who has “thrown off the shackles of motherhood” and marriage by running away with Tigger, a sullen and wild female friend of the family.
This book is narrated by Sarah Peiffer, but it is available only on cassette, not CD or MP3. That is a disappointment because her narration is a delight to listen to.
I thoroughly enjoyed listening to this book, especially seeing Sarah and Max finally get engaged, and the more serious elements of the book do not in any way take away from the fun of this book. I give The Bilbao Looking Glass five stars!
The Bilbao Looking Glass is available now. To order from Amazon, click this link. You may also find it in your local bookstore or library.