Review: Chelsea Mansions by Barry Maitland

Elderly American tourists Nancy Hayes and Emerson Merckle are walking back to their hotel after a lovely day at London’s Chelsea Flower Show when Emerson is rudely knocked to the ground and Nancy falls under a bus and is killed. When describing events to police, bystanders all agree that she was deliberately picked up and thrown under the bus and that there is no way it could have been an accident. DI Kathy Kolla is, not unrealistically, unable to immediately find a reason why a septuagenarian lady from Boston would be deliberately killed in the middle of London. Her investigation soon starts to centre on the hotel at which the pair were staying and its more imposing neighbouring home owned by expat Russian oligarch Mikhail Moszynski and his new wife. The case has a number of frustrating dead ends before some sense can be made, and more than a little energy is expended when Kolla’s boss, DCI David Brock, nearly loses his life.

The story is an excellent one, very tightly plotted and offering all manner of possibilities for a resolution. Though he now writes full time, Maitland was a professor of architecture and this shows in the wonderful detail he brings to life of the area of London in which the book’s events take place. I really was able to picture the buildings, their basements, the private garden shared by the street’s residents and these provided a great backdrop to meeting an eclectic set of suspects, witnesses and potential further victims. The run-down hotel is owned by an ex-army man whose family has owned the building for generations and is staffed by a motley collection of misfits. There is pressure to sell to the neighbouring Russians who want to expand their home even further. There’s also a strange young man who inserts himself into Kolla’s investigation and, as any crime fiction reader will know, people who do that are automatically suspect. But which of these people would throw someone under a bus? And why?

I enjoyed meeting Kathy Kolla (definitely the star of this book) and David Brock. The pair have a good working relationship and we see just the right amount of their personal lives to get a good sense of their rounded personalities. In addition to Brock’s brush with death there’s another fairly major incident that affects the whole investigative team and in both instances the two main characters are nicely supportive of each other. Just as well as the bureaucracy they both deal with is pretty unforgiving. It can be hard to ‘break in’ to a long running series but happily I did not feel at a disadvantage for not having read the previous 10 instalments of this series. There was enough back story provided to give me a sense of the characters’ histories but not too much that I am prevented on going back and reading the novels out of order (shocking thought that might be for some). Fans of the series should enjoy the developments in the personal lives of the characters, particularly Brock’s.

Without gimmickry or artifice this is an above average police procedural full of characters who invite you into their lives, if only for a while, and a satisfyingly intricate plot. It brings to life a delightful-sounding area of London and reminds us that the past can rarely be truly forgotten. Top reading.

Barry Maitland is Scottish born, London raised and has lived in Australia for nearly 30 years so on balance we feel comfortable claiming this as Aussie crime fiction even though it’s not set here. You can find out more about him from this recent ‘ten terrifying questions’ interview at Booktopia. Kerrie reviewed the previous novel in this series, Dark Mirror, here at Fair Dinkum and at my own blog I reviewed Maitland’s standalone novel Bright Air which is set in Australia.

My rating: 3.5/5 stars (rating scale is explained here)
Author website:
Publisher: Allen & Unwin [2011]
ISBN: 9781742376387
Length: 434 pages
Format: Trade Paperback
Source: I borrowed it from the libray