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The Mice Will Play

by Edward O. Phillips

Montreal writer Edward O. Phillips has made a name for himself writing witty mysteries about Westmount. In his latest offering, The Mice Will Play, Phillips continues to mine his rich vein of Wildean wit. Protagonist Gemma Johnstone’s situation is pretty dire: her latest monied lover has expired in her bed, and she finds herself with a serious cash-flow problem.

The redhaired, tall, attractive, and frighteningly competent Gemma will not be at a loss for long, however. She soon finds employment as a companion to an elderly Westmount woman, Helen Chisolm, while the latter’s odious daughter takes a two-week cruise. Phillips keeps the plot humming briskly as Gemma takes charge, rescuing Helen from her prison-like existence in the tower of her old house, and altogether acting like a fairy godmother to her geriatric Cinderella.

Although we never doubt that Gemma, who dominates this narrative so completely, will triumph in the end, Phillips’ writing is a treat from start to finish. Gemma sounds like a well-bred version of a ’40s broad, choosing a career living off her charms in preference to her token profession as a registered nurse. The narrative is a constant assault on political correctness, punctuated by penetrating asides on everything from hairstyles, clothes, and furnishings to food and Gemma’s chosen area of expertise, the relations between the sexes.

But the really sensuous bits focus on food. The cooking and preparation of tasty meals preoccupy Gemma – the novel climaxes in a catered affair with some bizarre twists. A passage describing Gemma shopping for groceries is the sexiest thing in the book. And no Canadian will forget Gemma’s withering contempt for maple syrup. “It is a vile liquid, with an unpleasant aftertaste to the intense sweetness.”

If there is sometimes a hint that Gemma is in fact a female version of Phillips’ acerbic Westmount lawyer Geoffrey Chadwick – that she may indeed be Chadwick in another incarnation, it only adds to the spice. Readers will enjoy Gemma’s adventures among the rich Wasps as much as Gemma herself, who early on comments, “I could hardly wait for tomorrow’s installment of ‘Gemma Johnstone: Girl Companion,’ a roman à clef with the key left under the mat.”