Motive in Shadow
by Lesley Egan

Doubleday: New York, 1980

Review by
Jennifer Monroe Franson
181 pages November 2008


Motive in Shadow, by Lesley Egan (one of several pseudonyms of Elizabeth Linington), is not a whodunit, but a whydunit. Attorney Jesse Falkenstein, hired to contest a baffling will, must unravel a tangle of clues dating back to the Roaring Twenties in order to find out why Los Angeles real-estate mogul Claire Manning has disinherited her much-loved only son. Old letters and diaries and a wide array of witnesses all contribute as Falkenstein sorts through secrets, infidelities, blackmail, and seeming dead-ends to reach the surprising twist that concludes the novel.

This is a tightly crafted and unusually subtle mystery. Egan's virtuosity allows no wasted scenes or bits of information; even seemingly unhelpful witnesses provide clues to the ultimate solution. Subsequent readings are even more enjoyable than the first.

As in Egan's other books (particularly those starring Glendale detective Vic Varallo), Los Angeles itself emerges as a significant character — one as clearly drawn as any of the people in the novel. Streets, neighborhoods and landmarks are accurately placed and lovingly delineated. Egan, who was born in Illinois but grew up in Southern California, clearly knows L.A. backward and forward; her familiarity with the city's history and geography add greatly to the novel's convincing texture.

Incidentally, there is a hint of mystery about the book unrelated to its plot. Motive in Shadow's copyright date is 1980, and the novel's internal chronology places it unequivocally in that year. Despite this, the book has a strangely timeless — or perhaps anachronistic — ambiance. A private detective arrives at the door carrying his hat; a nurse-housekeeper appears in a housedress with an apron; a more fashionably dressed woman wears a sheath dress and "sheer silk stockings". Was this a manuscript written — but left unfinished, rejected or laid aside — in the 1960s and later retooled and resubmitted? Or did Egan deliberately write this novel for later publication, as Agatha Christie did with Curtain and Sleeping Murder? This is one question on which even the redoubtable Jesse Falkenstein is silent.


© 2008 Jennifer Monroe Franson

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