BOOKS

Massage and murder

Charlie Salter takes on another mystery

MORTON RITTS May 21 1990
BOOKS

Massage and murder

Charlie Salter takes on another mystery

MORTON RITTS May 21 1990

Massage and murder

BOOKS

Charlie Salter takes on another mystery

L SENSITIVE CASE ]y Eric Wright

Doubleday, 218 pages, $22.95)

Near the end of Canadian crime writer Eric Wright’s latest book, one character picks up a novel that another is reading and comments, :You like cosy books, don’t you?... Big, happynding ones.” The remark almost describes A Sensitive Case itself. The 61-year-old Wright’s

seventh Charlie Salter mystery in as many years is not big, but it is cosy and does end iiappily. Both qualities add to its unassuming charm.

Wright’s fictional territory is middle-class, WASP Toronto seen through the eyes of locally born Salter, a decent, middle-aged police detective who has not lost touch with his workingclass roots. As a cop, Salter seems to have advanced as far as he can, but as a person he continues to grow. Almost invariably, his sensitivity and introspection help him sort out problems in his personal life, while he doggedly goes about the job of solving crimes. In doing so, the inspector reminds his readers that self-fulfilment depends less on a brilliant intellect than an open mind.

The personal problem that Salter faces in the new novel is the possibility that his wife, a successful businesswoman, is having an affair. Another sensitive case—the one that gives the book its title—is the murder of an attractive 42-year-old massage therapist, found dead in her apartment bathtub. Primary suspects include a well-connected provincial deputy minister; a popular television-show host who wants to write a crime novel; and a university services administrator masquerading as the institution’s president. The first two are the therapist’s former clients, and the other is a former lover. The masseuse operated a legitimate establishment, but because of the prominence of the suspects, the possibilities for embarrassment seem endless.

For that reason, veteran detective Mel Pickett is assigned to Salter’s Special Affairs unit to help out. By inserting the solidly built detective into the story, Wright effectively establishes a complementary point of view. Pickett’s domestic situation contrasts with Salter’s: a widower who dreams of building a log cabin for his imminent retirement, he has to contend with an interfering former sisterin-law and, unexpectedly, with an English teenage girl looking for her longlost grandfather.

Acutely aware of nuances of class in all his work, Wright draws subtle differences in the social habits of the two police detectives. Salter and his wife have just installed a state-of-the-art kitchen, complete with quarry tiles and halogen lamps. The more costconscious Pickett, meanwhile, has duplexed his small west Toronto home

and sleeps in the basement. The author is better attuned to class distinctions than ethnic ones. His Toronto seems more like the parochial, predominantly British community of 25 years ago than the culturally diverse city that it has become.

A Sensitive Case is an accumulation of small pleasures, from its direct, unaffected prose and tidy structure to its wry humor and finely observed sense of character. Wright also knows how to plant his clues: when the murderer turns out to be someone other than one of the major suspects, readers can only blame themselves if they are more surprised than they should be.

MORTON RITTS