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Nazi war crimes loom in Quebec-based murder mystery

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Ann Lambert’s The Birds That Stay is set on the West Island and in the Laurentians, where an elderly Jewish woman is murdered.

In her debut murder mystery, Ann Lambert manages to elevate an escapist genre into a meditation on the repercussions of horrendous crimes on generations to come.

The Montreal author reaches back to the Holocaust, to set the stage for a modern-day killing in The Birds That Stay.

This substantial novel is set in the Laurentians and Montreal’s West Island. It introduces Sûreté du Québec Chief Insp. Roméo Leduc and Marie Russell, who, like Lambert, is a middle-aged Dawson College teacher, the bicultural daughter of a French mother and English father, who grew up in the bedroom communities of the West Island.

Lambert has taught English literature at Dawson for 28 years. Her theatre experience shines through in this dramatic novel. She has been writing and directing stage and radio plays for 35 years and, for the past dozen, has been with Dawson’s theatre collective. She also recently launched a new theatre company called Theatre Ouest End.

The body of the deceased, which appears near the beginning of the book, is that of an elderly woman who has been living reclusively for years in the village of Ste-Lucie.

The 82-year-old goes by the name Anna Newman and a chai necklace is found at the scene, but Leduc’s preliminary digging uncovers a birth certificate showing that she was born in 1932 in Vienna with the family name Hanning and was baptized as a Catholic.

The façades people live behind is a theme of the book, from the false image of happy, comfortable family life in the leafy suburbs, to assumed identities and cover-ups of Nazi war crimes.

The third key character is Ennis Jamieson, a handsome, smooth-talking investment adviser who appears to have it all – plenty of money, a luxurious home, a beautiful young wife and nice kids. That success, however, has come from siphoning off the life savings of the old ladies who are his clients.

Yet he and Anna Newman share a much darker secret – the death of a teenaged girl decades ago. And it all stemmed from a Nazi war crime.

Without giving too much away, lives were ruined by the actions of one man who was complicit in the rounding up of Hungarian Jews headed to Auschwitz. He was among the Nazi collaborators who immigrated to Canada in the 1950s and led seemingly normal lives. He managed to stay under the radar when Ottawa finally started to take action against those like him in the 1980s.

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The Birds That Stay is a piece of Québec noir that’s perhaps a little too dark for some readers. Everyone’s life seems bleak. There’s divorce, failed relationships, family estrangement, alcoholism, child molestation, biker gangs, Alzheimer’s, grey November days and the list goes on. The title may be a reference to the many people who did not stay in the province.

Leduc is an honourable man with a conscience, a highly respected professional at the peak of his career, but his personal life is desolate. Russell, like Leduc, is divorced and is having difficulties coping with her mother’s worsening dementia.

Lambert accurately depicts the peculiarities of life in this province: the English-French divide and, most acutely, the lingering stereotypes about Jews: The old lady must have been the victim of a robbery gone wrong, they figure. Everyone knows the Jews are rich, despite the fact Newman lived in a very modest cottage.

Leduc’s police colleagues privately wonder why he is spending so much time on the death of an elderly woman no one seems to really know.

Newman was Russell’s neighbour, but had no contact with her. Yet Russell, to her shock, is connected to the despicable crime and finds herself drawn into the investigation – and to Leduc.

The Birds That Stay is the first of what Lambert intends to be a series of murder mysteries featuring the two of them.