Cover image for The Marx sisters
The Marx sisters
Maitland, Barry.
Personal Author:
First U.S. edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Arcade Publishing ; Distributed by Time Warner Trade Publishing, 1999.

Physical Description:
314 pages ; 25 cm
General Note:
"A Kathy Kolla and David Brock Mystery."
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
X Adult Fiction Mystery/Suspense
X Adult Fiction Open Shelf

On Order



Detective Kathy Kolla's first case is one for the books. Meredith Winterbottom, a resident of Jerusalem Lane -- a quaint section of London inhabited by Eastern European immigrants -- and a great-granddaughter of Karl Marx, is found dead. Was she the victim of greedy real-estate developers, or was she killed for the politics of another age? When a second Marx sister is killed, David Brock, Chief Inspector of Scotland Yard, is brought in to help. As Kathy and Brock delve into the Lane's eccentric melting pot, they find unpublished letters from Marx to Engels; a possible fourth volume of Das Kapital; an endless list of shady suspects; and a plot to end Kathy's investigating days for good. Can they unravel the mystery before Kathy's first case is her last?

The Marx Sisters is a classic British whodunit, one that adds an unforgettable team to the ranks of great fictional detectives.

Author Notes

Barry Maitland was born in 1941 in Scotland. He is an Australian author of crime fiction. After studying architecture at Cambridge, Maitland practised and taught in the UK before moving to Australia, where he became a Professor of Architecture at the University of Newcastle. He later retired and began writing full-time. His titles include: All My Enemies, Babel, Spider Trap, Dark Mirror, and The Raven's Eye. He made the Ned Kelly 2015 shortlists in the category of Best Novel with his title Crucifixion Creek.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

The first entry in the popular series of mysteries featuring British police detectives Kathy Kolla and David Brock--a successful series overseas, just now making its appearance here--is a deceptive little tale indeed. An elderly woman is dead, probably murdered. Her two sisters are among the large assortment of suspects (a list that also includes a bookseller, an American scholar, and at least one other family member). At the heart of the mystery: a collection of books and manuscripts that may have belonged to Karl Marx. The most intriguing aspect of the novel is the way the story changes: its tone darkens, its characters (one in particular) reveal hidden aspects of themselves, and what seemed to be a traditional gentle British mystery becomes something altogether different. Kathy and David make a good team, and if their future stories are as smartly constructed and as well written as this one, readers have a wonderful new series to look forward to. --David Pitt

Publisher's Weekly Review

Two Scotland Yard detectives investigate the murder of Karl Marx's great-granddaughters (via an illegitimate son) and the theft of the unpublished manuscript of a fourth volume of Das Kapital, in this engrossing mystery from an Australian writer making his American debut. When 60-something Meredith Winterbottom is found dead in her London flat, Det. Sgt. Kathy Kolla and Chief Inspector David Brock are called in to determine the cause: was she murdered? Meredith and her two sisters had refused to sell their apartment to developers hoping to gentrify Jerusalem Lane, a charming neighborhood where Eastern European immigrants pass the time debating philosophical points and harboring ancient grudges. Kolla and Brock uncover a host of suspicious characters, but the coroner rules death by suicide. The case is reopened six months later, when Meredith's sister Eleanor is murdered. The remaining sister, Peg, who looks like the Queen Mother but is an unreconstructed Stalinist who spouts her great-grandfather's theories while serving tea in fine china, fears for her life. The detectives wade though a maze of misleading clues until, in a dramatic finale, Kolla realizes the strange truth behind the crimes. Maitland has a disconcerting affection for red herrings, which he strews about with a heavy hand. But his deft depiction of his idiosyncratic characters, his evocative portrayal of Jerusalem Lane and his clever use of Marxist theories and history make this nothing less than a Kapital read. (June) FYI: The Marx Sisters was shortlisted for the British Crime Writers Association's John Creasy Award for Best First Mystery. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

When one of the three elderly Marx sisters (great-granddaughters of Karl Marx) living in a small London neighborhood dies suddenly, her doctor suspects foul play and informs the police. Detective Sergeant Kathy Kolla and Scotland Yard's David Brock pursue the case, finding ample motive for murder in the woman's refusal to accede to an ambitious developer's financial enticements: she was the only hold-out on Jerusalem Lane, once home to Karl Marx. Because several stood to gain from the old woman's deathÄincluding her sonÄKolla and Brock widen their net. Good, solid prose marks this first-of-a-series procedural. Fine work from an award-winning British mystery writer. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One `Something ain't right.' Meredith glared at her two sisters, sitting facing each other at the far end of the table, in front of the window. Eleanor looked at her carefully, recognizing the pouted lip that signified she was being stubborn.     `Well, your apple sponge was beautiful, as always, dear.' Peg dabbed her mouth meticulously with her napkin.     `What do you mean, "Something isn't right"?' Eleanor said.     `The way the Kowalskis decided to up and leave, just like that, all of a sudden. They should have discussed it.'     `They're retiring, Meredith. They don't have to discuss it. They're getting on, and the bookshop couldn't have been making them much of a living.'     `Adam Kowalski is a hopeless businessman, that's true,' Meredith conceded ungraciously. `Anyone could have made a better job of selling second-hand books than Adam Kowalski. But what about Konrad Witz next door? His camera shop has been doing well enough. He told me so, after the Christmas season last year.'     `He's at an age to retire too, dear. They sold together to get a better price, so someone can knock the two shops together if they want. That's what Mr Hepple said. You remember.'     `I don't like empty shop windows, Eleanor. It gives me the creeps.'     Looking at her two sisters, Meredith was struck by how little they had all changed since they were girls. Eleanor, the youngest, was the same headstrong child she had been then, always certain she knew best, all elbows and knees, head in the clouds and holes in her socks. Meredith was irritated to find herself wondering, exactly as her mother had done sixty years before, whether Eleanor had remembered to put on fresh knickers that morning. And Peg was still the neat, sweet little girl who could always find a way to get other people to do things for her.     `Adam Kowalski looks more and more like a beanpole every time you see him,' Peg piped up.     `Have you ever noticed,' Eleanor said, `how he always runs his hand over the plaque in the wall beside his shop, every time he passes? I wonder if he is a secret believer.'     `No.' Peg shook her head. `I saw him do it and I asked him why, and he said he did it for luck. He said that Karl Marx might be the most famous man in the world, and he, Adam Kowalski, the least, but Marx was dead and he was alive, and that, in the end, was all that really counted.'     `That,' said Eleanor severely, `is a matter of opinion.'     Peg suddenly gave a little shiver. Meredith, thinking of the electricity bill, snapped, `It's not cold, Peg. Look at the sun out there.'     It was true. The golden light was gleaming on the chimneys and slate roofs of the buildings on the other side of the Lane.     `It is a beautiful day, dear,' Peg replied wistfully. Then impulsively she added, `Why don't you come with us today, Meredith? Just this once?'     `Why should I want to go for a walk in a flippin' cemetery?' Meredith sniffed. `I'll get there in a box soon enough, I dare say. No, thank you, I'll put me feet up as usual and have me glass of port and forty winks.'     `Come on,' Eleanor said to Peg, getting to her feet. `We'll clear the table and do the washing-up before we go.' Chapter Two Kathy came running down the stairs to the mortuary feeling like a school kid late for classes. This is ridiculous, she thought, it's my case, and stopped to get her breath. She pulled her sweater straight over the pleats of her skirt and ran a hand across the fair hair pulled to the back of her head, then stepped forward and pushed open the plastic swing doors.     There were half a dozen people in the room. She recognized the pathologist, Dr Mehta, standing by an open filing cabinet, writing on a clip-board, while his assistant, green-overalled and already kitted out with rubber gloves and cap, was sorting through nasty-looking tools on a stainless-steel tray. The anxious woman in the dark suit was probably from the coroner's office, and a photographer sat near her, looking bored and hung-over.     In front of Kathy, and with his back to her, a big man in a surprisingly smart suit was leaning forward, peering at the table in the centre of the room. His hands were clutched behind his back, and from their fingers hung the straps of a Polaroid camera. Less like a Legend of the Yard, she thought, than an overdressed tourist . He straightened as the doors flapped closed behind her, and turned, peering at her over the top of the half-lens glasses perched on the end of his nose. She hadn't expected the almost boyish thatch of hair, and the beard. Both hair and beard were grey, almost blue-grey in the cold fluorescent light.     `Detective Sergeant Kolla,' she said brightly, extending her hand, expecting some put-down for being late, knowing his reputation among the junior officers at Division. But he just beamed at her, a big bear of a man, twice her weight, and took her hand, introducing himself disarmingly without rank. `David Brock,' he said in a low growl.     They both turned their attention back to the body.     The old woman looked smaller and more frail here, naked on the table, than when Kathy had seen her yesterday, lying peacefully on her bed in her woollen cardigan and skirt and thick stockings. Now her face was tinged grey on one side, and her eyes seemed to have sunk back into their sockets behind the wrinkled lids. Her dowager's hump was quite pronounced, forcing her shoulders forward as she lay on her back on the stainless-steel surface. Kathy's eyes skipped quickly down her body, over the withered breasts, the pubic hair ginger unlike the silver hair on her head, to the feet gnarled with arthritis.     Dr Mehta broke the silence. `You'll make the identification, Sergeant?'     `Yes. This is the same woman I saw yesterday at 22 Jerusalem Lane, WC2, at' -- she consulted her notebook -- `16.56.'     `How do you spell your name?' he asked. She told him, watching Brock bend lower again until his nose was within a few inches of the old woman's face.     `I'm damned if I can see any spots, Sundeep,' he muttered.     `On the scalp, just inside the hair line, Chief Inspector. In any case,' he continued, addressing himself to Kathy in his precise, formal manner, `petechial haemorrhages don't prove anything. They can be a sign of smothering, but they're also seen in other conditions of terminal lack of oxygen and congestion, such--as heart failure, so they're not diagnostic of asphyxia in the forensic sense.'     He returned to filling in his form.     `Her skin is pretty tough,' Brock remarked.     `Yes. I'd say she spent some years out in the sun, in a warmer climate than we are blessed with in these blighted shores.'     `Oh now, it hasn't been a bad summer,' Brock murmured absently, continuing his detailed inspection of the corpse. `What about these faint bruises on the upper arms? Could somebody have held her down?'     Dr Mehta shrugged. `Perhaps she got so excited watching the gee-gees on TV she gripped her own arms too tightly. They bruise very easily, these old dears.'     `But you've got the bag?' Kathy broke in, and turned to Brock. `We found a plastic bag in her kitchen rubbish bin which had moisture inside, and a couple of silver hairs.'     `Oh yes, I've got it,' said Dr Mehta, `and of course we'll test it against the swabs. Anyway, we'll have a good look at blood fluidity and, of course, the condition of the heart, dilatation of heart chambers, oedema of the lungs, congestion of organs, et cetera, et cetera, but I'm not in the least sanguine , Sergeant, that in the end I'll even be able to establish the cause of death, let alone provide you with clues .'     He turned to Brock. `As you know, Chief Inspector, evidence of asphyxia is often uncertain, and if it was a plastic bag ...' He shrugged. `And to tell you frankly' -- he lowered his voice and switched off the tape recorder that had been running at his elbow -- `I find it difficult to have much confidence in the judgement of her doctor, whatever his name was, who called us out, although I couldn't say that at the time.'     `He was a bit of a character.' Kathy smiled and the pathologist rolled his eyes, returning to his paperwork.     After a while he put the clip-board down and pulled a packet of rubber gloves out of a drawer. Kathy knew the procedure -- first the Y-shaped incision on the front of the body, from shoulders to crotch, and the taking of blood from this cut for alcohol analysis before opening the body cavities; then the systematic opening of skull and body cavities and inspection of organs in place, and their removal in turn for individual examination. Just thinking about it seemed to drain the thing on the table of what was left of its humanity, as if its soul were shrinking from the approaching knife.     `You all right?'     Kathy started, then nodded at Brock. `Yes, sir. I was in Traffic for two years.'     `Ah, yes. Blood enough for a lifetime. All the same, not much point in our hanging about, eh?'     He waited for her to agree before speaking to Mehta. `We'll leave you to it then, Sundeep. Anything occurs to you, we'd appreciate an informal opinion.'     `I always oblige when I can, Brock. But this time, I would not hold my breath.'     They left, closely followed by the woman from the coroner's office. It was a fine September morning, and after the chill of the mortuary the city seemed soaked with warmth and life by the glittering sunlight, although the leaves of the plane trees were already curling yellow and showering down with each gust of breeze. Traffic was heavy, and Kathy made slow progress across town.     Her passenger said nothing for a while. She wondered what she had done to deserve this; there was enough to think about in running a murder investigation without having a Detective Chief Inspector from Scotland Yard's Department SO1 -- the Serious Crime Branch -- following your every move, let alone one with Brock's reputation. Inspector McDonald had been evasive when he had called her in this morning, and that wasn't like him. She had heard detectives at Division discussing Brock in the past. People who made a practice of remaining studiously unimpressed by senior officers apparently had difficulty doing so in his case. He was good, it was said, but difficult, often secretive, ferociously cranky and impatient. He didn't look that way now, she thought, as she glanced at him out of the corner of her eye, slumped comfortably in his seat, a benign look on his face, enjoying the sun through half-closed eyes and sniffing at the autumn smells through the open window.     `So you feel convinced it's murder?' he said suddenly.     `Not yet.' Kathy was cautious. `But I could be. The whole set-up was rather odd. I had the same reaction as Dr Mehta to the woman's doctor -- Dr Botev.'     `He called the police in the first place?'     `Yes. She was found by her two sisters who live in rooms upstairs in the same house. They called Dr Botev and he then phoned us after he had examined her. A patrol car responded, and they called in CID. I arrived with DC Mollineaux about twenty-five minutes later -- maybe three-quarters of an hour after she was found.'     `That would have been soon after 4, then.'     `Yes. The sisters had been out since about 2 on a Sunday afternoon outing to the cemetery to visit departed relatives. Apparently they did that quite often. They'd said goodbye to their sister Meredith when they left, and when they got back they looked in on her and found her lying on her bed, not breathing. They called their doctor. When I got there, one of the sisters had gone upstairs to her room to lie down -- in shock, apparently. The other was with Botev and quite coherent, although upset of course. The doctor insisted there was nothing wrong with Mrs Winterbottom's heart -- she'd had a thorough check-up only recently. He was quite stroppy about it, and I thought a bit unnecessarily so in front of the sister. It must have been upsetting for her to hear him demanding a post-mortem, and telling me to get on to the coroner's office, although she stayed quite calm. Actually she was rather good. Seemed a lot more sensible than he did. I asked her to make sure her sister was all right, and then argued a bit with him, about people dropping with coronaries ten minutes after being told their heart was perfect, but he wouldn't hear of it. Eventually I did as he asked.'     `You had no choice.'     `That's what I thought. Dr Mehta arrived at 5.40.'     `Between one and a half and three and a half hours after she must have died.'     `Right. He took her temperature straight away, and he did seem surprised that it was as high as it was. But it was a warm afternoon, and she was well wrapped up.'     `Do you know what the temperature was?'     She shook her head.     `It'll be in his report. After asphyxia the body temperature can actually rise for a while before it begins to drop.'     `He didn't tell me that.'     `Sundeep enjoys being a sceptic -- and keeping his cards close to his chest.' He growled at the car in front trying to make an illegal right turn and blocking their lane. `You checked the place over, of course.'     `Yes, Mollineaux and I had a look round, and then the scene-of-crime crew arrived and did it properly. There was no sign of forced entry, but there wouldn't need to be -- the place was wide open. The sisters habitually leave the front door on to the street on the latch apparently, and Meredith's door to her apartment was the same. Also there's a fire escape at the back, and the window on to that was open, too. A couple of drawers in her bedroom were open, but apart from that nothing looked disturbed. It all looked so peaceful, as if she'd just lain down for a nap after lunch with a glass of her favourite tipple, and then passed away. Dr Mehta will analyse the drink of course, but it was hardly touched.     `Apart from the plastic bag in the kitchen, there was one other thing that made me begin to wonder if Botev was right. Meredith's shoes were on the carpet at the foot of the bed, toes pointing away. There's an end-board, so she couldn't have sat on the edge and taken them off. They would have to have been taken off somewhere else and placed there. But if she'd done that, she would have held them by the heels and put them down with the toes pointing towards the bed, most likely. On the other hand, if she lay down with her shoes on, and someone tidied things up afterwards, that person might reach across the end-board, slip them off, toes pointing towards them, and set them down that way on the floor.     `At least,' she said, taking a deep breath, `it seemed a possibility at the time. Maybe it's a bit far-fetched.'     `Hmm,' Brock grunted non-committally, `worth bearing in mind, anyway. SOCO's printed the shoes?'     `Yes, and the glass of port beside the bed, and the rubbish bin in the kitchen, and all the usual places.'     Brock smiled. `Sorry.'     Kathy flushed and was quiet as she turned the corner into Marquis Street and pulled up on to the pavement against the bollards that closed the south end of Jerusalem Lane. (Continues...) Copyright © 1994 Barry Maitland. All rights reserved.