As strange as it is to be caregiver to the cantankerous Mr. Cathal Flood, the strangeness is just beginning for Maud Drennan. While excavating the mountains of rubbish in Bridlemere, Flood’s Victorian home in west London, Maud comes upon clues that things are seriously amiss.
In a cloudburst in the cloakroom, a milk bottle rolls up with a photograph of a boy and girl, the girl’s face obliterated by a cigarette burn. Behind the shifting wall of National Geographics, another photo appears, this one with a woman’s face burned out. Initials appear on a dusty bedroom mirror. Who is trying to get Maud’s attention, and why?
In “Mr. Flood’s Last Resort,” Jess Kidd delivers another charming mix of magic and mystery, this time wrapped around a tale of family love and dysfunction. Kidd keeps the story tethered to reality just enough before letting it fly into a world roamed by cats named for authors, a host of eccentrics and the ghosts of opinionated saints. Like her debut novel “Himself,” the rich language is accented by Kidd’s Irish upbringing.
Here we have Mr. Flood, a retired artist and hobby taxidermist unhinged by his wife’s death. There’s Gabriel, his shifty son, who seems more interested in something buried at Bridlemere than in his dotty old dad. Somewhere is Marguerite, the beloved daughter and despised sister, dead or alive.
“The quiet house is not at peace, for there is a watched and watchful feeling, a shifting shiftless feeling. As if more than cats track your moves, as if nameless eyes follow you about your business. … Put your wristwatch on the windowsill, you’ll find it hanging from a hook on the dresser.”
Sorting through the mess both mental and physical is Maud, a lonely soul with her own unreconciled loss and a drive to set things right. Maud’s transition from caregiver to detective is nudged by her neighbor Renata, an agoraphobic cross-dresser and fan of murder mysteries. Didn’t the old hoarder kill his wife? Didn’t he have a hand in his daughter’s disappearance? Isn’t Maud herself in danger? But what about the other dodgy characters, like the son who Mr. Flood says is not his son but “a gobshite”?
The deeper that Maud digs, the more confounding the clues become, with suspected villains and victims changing positions as the pages turn. Amid it all, Maud and Mr. Flood get achingly close to true understanding. “He no longer wishes to kill me, if he ever did, for we are friends now,” she says, before yet another twist upends the plot.
When Maud commandeers a car while St. Dymphna, “patron saint of lunatics and runaways,” rides shotgun, the reader is happily along for the ride. The action-packed climax leaves us with the whiff of a sequel. We can only hope it will come soon.
Maureen McCarthy is a team leader at the Star Tribune.
Mr. Flood's Last Resort
By: Jess Kidd.
Publisher: Atria, 340 pages, $26.