Barbara Kay on Brigid Quinn: A crime-solving role model for women of a certain age


National Post - Wednesday March 20th, 2013

Becky Masterman

If you’re attending Toronto’s “Authors at Harbourfront Centre” event tonight, I recommend to your attention one Becky Masterman, debut author of the new Penguin mystery/thriller, Rage Against the Dying.

I read it during my vacation last week and loved it for its racy, fat-free writing and seamless dual plot. But also because the book’s author and her protagonist are women of a certain age, not unlike moi-même. It tickled me to find another woman writer who discovered her true métier in her sixties.

Masterman’s creation, Brigid Quinn is, according to Publisher’s Weekly, “one of the most memorable FBI agents since Clarice Starling.” (Clarice, note, was in her prime in Silence of the Lambs.) In Rage, retired after a long career dealing with severely deviant sexual predators, Brigid’s a scarred war horse out to grass. But when the trumpets sound, she heeds the call to duty — and can still deploy her lethal skills, notwithstanding some arthritic pain afterwards.

We meet Brigid on page one, hunting rocks in an isolated desert wadi, as seen through the eyes of a hit man planning to rape and murder her. The petite older woman seems fragile, with grey wisps of hair sticking out from under her sun hat, yet “her body was so erect” he finds her almost sexually attractive. A compelling scene follows, in which this “hot granny,” as the would-be killer dubs Brigid, shatters his expectation of easy conquest in a shocking but plausible way.

Like all the best literary sleuths, Brigid is obsessive in her pursuit of justice. But as is de rigeur as well for the genre, she is haunted by old wounds and failures.

Never before married, Brigid is wondrous at the late-life happiness and peace she has found with her gentle new husband Carlo, a former Episcopalian priest and philosophy professor. Through the simple routines of life in their modest Tucson home — gardening, dog-walking, healthy meals and evening DVDs — Brigid has been seeking to numb horrific memories of her past cases, fearing that a glimpse by Carlo into that dark abyss would drive him away, precisely the case with a former lover.

Tough outside, tender inside, necessarily diffident when she yearns after guileless spontaneity, Brigid’s character, deftly limned in minimalist narrative strokes revealing the effects on personality of repeated exposure to humanity’s dark side, exerts a strong gravitational pull on the reader’s sympathy.

The past intrudes decisively on Brigid’s hard-won serenity when a man confesses to the worst unsolved case of her career — the disappearance and presumed murder of a young protégé she had personally trained for a sting operation that went tragically awry.

The new FBI agent on the case, a younger woman echoing Brigid’s youthful tenacity and courage, mistrusts the man’s confession and petitions for Brigid’s reluctant help in bucking her department’s determination to close the file. Unshriven guilt and professional honour joust with the inherently incompatible cultivation of personal happiness Brigid so cherishes.

Honour wins, as it must, and Brigid is forced to withdraw emotionally from her bewildered husband in order to give her best to the case. The tension, like parallel kite strings in a steady wind, never slackens, as both stories — the search for the real killer and the marriage crisis – are smoothly manipulated by the masterly hand on the narrative reel.

Rage will appeal to aging Boomers. Brigid and Carlo’s relationship is suffused with the kind of gratitude for safe harbour only those in their declining years with a history of volatile life seas can really appreciate. But the strength of character and moral vigour they bring to their respective roles remain youthfully undiminished. Like the Boomers, they are not going gently into that good night.

As a mystery-thriller, not just a first-class novel, Rage bears the special burden of exciting enough reader interest in its protagonist to ensure loyalty to sequels. So Brigid must exhibit staying power as a character. She fulfils that obligation and then some. By the end of the book, we know enough about her to feel closure on this story, but not on our relationship with Brigid Quinn. We want more of her.

Masterman describes her book as a “coming-of-age novel for an older woman.” Brigid Quinn just happens to be a woman capable of killing a man half her age with the most primitive of weapons, so she isn’t exactly Everywoman. But she is Every(older)woman’s fantasy of remaining, under the looming shadow of mortality, physically independent, sensually buoyant and culturally indispensable.

Therefore, I predict serial success for this hot granny.

National Post
bkay@videotron.ca