A Beginner’s Guide to Murder by Rosalind Stopps seems like a cozy mystery at first glance; a bunch of little old ladies plotting a murder together to save a friend. This appeals to the Murder She Wrote lover in me because I relish the idea of getting older but not losing my ‘spunk’. But as I dove in to my latest Halloween-ish read, I realized that this wasn’t going to be a lighthearted tale of grannies making things right, instead, it’s a cursory look at human trafficking, and just how easy it is for certain victims to fall prey to it. Yes, a group of older women are the heroes, but even their lives aren’t as straightforward as one typically expects in this genre. I’m not doing this book justice by comparing it to a cozy mystery because this may turn off readers who typically prefer a darker read – and despite the unlikely protagonists, this is most definitely not for the sensitive among us.
Daphne, Grace and Meg are still in the extremely early stages of friendship, tentatively meeting for coffee after a pilates class one day. They are all older, (seventies-ish) and alone, nervous about many things and unsure how to interact with each other appropriately. This discomfort only increases when 17-year-oldl Nina bursts into this same coffee shop and asks these women for help. As Nina goes to the bathroom, they lie to the suspicious man who comes to the shop looking for her, then take her back to Meg’s house to give her proper clothes and a cup of tea. It soon becomes clear this young girl is a victim of human trafficking and these three women must not only hide her, but keep themselves safe as Nina’s pimp patrols the streets looking for her, stopping at nothing to get her back. As the title suggests these three women, terrified to go to the authorities and unable to protect themselves and Nina properly, decide their only option is to hire someone to kill this terrible criminal, because quite honestly, they’d be doing a world a favour would they not?
This book does not dwell in the horrors of trafficking, there isn’t much violence and we mostly get Nina’s perspective during the lead up to her capture, and the quiet moments to herself when she’s left alone. It’s her despair that is most painful to read about, and surprisingly, the despair that Meg, Grace and Daphne also deal with in their own lives. All four of these women defy our expectations at different points in their lives, especially when we discover that one of the senior ladies had done a stint in jail during her youth. We don’t take a deep dive into each person, but we are given glimpses into their lives and the challenges they each faced, shaping them into the women they are today. Even though they aren’t introduced to the reader in this way, it becomes clear how resilient they all are, which illuminates their power and justifies their resolve in this current predicament they find themselves in with Nina.
The mechanics of this story work well; the plotting is slow but steady, and the story of Nina escaping into the café managed to raise my blood pressure even though I knew what the outcome was. There are a few jumps back and forth in time, but these are all easily followed, and the flashbacks serve to bolster the characterization in such a way that they aren’t distractions, instead they answer questions that niggle in the background.
Allow me a small detour from the book; human trafficking is a seldom talked about but pervasive and wide spread problem that lies mostly in the shadows of our society. Here in Canada we have a wonderful charity called Not in My City that seeks to educate people about this issue. I recall seeing a statistic that the Calgary Stampede is typically a hot bed of trafficking because of the influx of tourists to our city, so perhaps I’m more aware of it than others, but I do urge you to take a look at the organization above and educate yourself. I probably haven’t reiterated this lately so I’ll do so here; book readers are empathetic people because we get exposed to so many ‘issues’ that one doesn’t normally get exposed to in the course of a single life, so I tend to think of us as more aware than others. This is a book written for entertainment first and foremost, but I so appreciated it touching upon this problem because we need to keep working towards eliminating this form of modern day slavery.