The Undetectables, by Courtney Smyth, (2023) reads like the first book in a series and I hope this is the case, because it was fun, and I loved the magical detective characters. Set in a modern world where magic and the mundane exist in close proximity if not actually side-by-side, the story follows our three amateur sleuths as they try to uncover the identity of a magical serial killer.
The point of view character of the story, mostly, is Mallory Hawthorne. Mallory has powerful witch skills and an analytical mind. She wants to solve murders, and when she is fourteen, at a party at the home of her friend Cornelia, she gets her chance. She, Cornelia and their friend Diana find a ghost and its corpse in the cellar. The ghost, Theodore, a hapless mundane who had the embarrassment of dying in a cat costume (which means his ghost wears a cat costume) becomes the fourth member of their group.
When they discover the body, Mallory is fourteen. The story leaps forward. At twenty, Mallory’s life has not gone the way she hoped or planned. Fibromyalgia takes its toll on her strength and temper hourly. Mallory no longer has the strength to do magic, or much magic anyway; she’s in nearly constant pain, and fatigue ambushes her with brain-fog. Cornelia has gone off to university in London, and Diana is building sets and props for a theater company in Vancouver. Mallory feels weak and abandoned. When she finds out both friends are back in the magical town of Wrackton, and haven’t called her, she is even more devastated. Then, out of the blue, she gets a commission for The Undetectables, the name she gave their nascent business back when she was a teen. To her complete shock, and the surprise of the others, the Night Mayor himself has hired them to solve a magical murder that has the local police stymied.
With the exuberant, if sometimes misguided, help of Theodore, the three dig into the deaths. At first, they seem right back to their old selves, but the strength of this book is the layers of the friendship and how they peel back as the story progresses. Diana seems fine, except for the string of exes she has left in Wrackton. She’s dated every eligible woman in the town, and it is always Diana who breaks it off, it seems. Diana is fat, and several minor characters in the book react with disapproval or sneers when they meet her. Strong and confident, Diana acts as if this doesn’t matter, but we, the readers, still notice. Cornelia, the wealthy heiress and political firebrand who hates that privilege always protects her, who wants to see the systems change to become more equitable, has somehow become involved with a bad boyfriend, and has fallen into the role of appeasing and placating him. (The boyfriend is brilliantly written, absolutely dislikeable from his first appearance.)
We see the others through Mallory’s tired, pain-filled eyes, as she wrestles with her lack of self-worth and her temper, which flares when she is in pain or frustrated (most of the time, in other words). Mallory sees herself as less-than, someone being carried by her friends, and consistently misconstrues things they say and do. Halfway through the story, Mallory accidentally commits a transgression against Cornelia, and spends the rest of the book trying to decide how to tell her. It’s believable.
The mystery, and the serial-killer villain, were the weakest points of the book. The failure of the Undetectables to solve the encyphered messages left by the killer was a big disappointment. So, too, was their inability to figure out who it was. I had a pretty good idea in the first third of the story, just by applying the “scientific principles” the group claims to use. The final scenes in the City Hall (with its various magical secrets) was a delight—tense, scary and still, often funny.
I assume this is a series simply because Mallory’s promise to Theodore—to solve his murder—remains unsolved. Whether a series or not, The Undetectables is a fun read. Enjoy it.