***In Strangers’ Houses


photo: ePi.Longo, creative commons license

By Elizabeth Mundy – Highly visible as an “issue” and yet highly invisible as individuals, East European immigrants and best friends Lena Szarka and her friend Timea Dubay clean London’s houses in the daytime and its offices at night. Although the work offers them more upward mobility than would be possible back in Hungary, working in a foreign country isn’t easy. The language is difficult, the systems and culture are unfamiliar, and nasty anti-immigrant sentiment lies just below the surface.

Most of Elizabeth Mundy’s debut murder mystery is told from Lena’s point of view, enabling a close-up perspective on the complexities and hazards of immigrant life on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. As house cleaners, she and Timea work in others’ private spaces, see their most intimate secrets, and observe their habits. It is an act of faith that they can do so safely and will be paid for their efforts. Mundy has created engaging characters facing believable challenges. It’s no surprise this is intended as the first of a series featuring the warm-hearted Lena.

Lena is a few years older than Timea and coping fairly well. But Timea, a single mother, is struggling. She’s never told anyone who her son Laszlo’s father is—and though it was hard to leave the boy behind, she expects this sojourn abroad to jump-start a better life for them both. The women’s childhood friend Istvan, a handsome television actor, also lives in London. Istvan is married to a well-off woman who has helped his career, and he’s achieved a lifestyle starkly contrasting with that of the women, one that lets him concentrate on what is most important, himself.

Early in the story, Lena begins to worry about Timea. Her friend is increasingly unhappy and confesses that the problem is someone she must get away from. When Timea doesn’t come home one night, Lena’s worry blossoms into fear, and when she doesn’t return by the next day, Lena goes to the police. They are disinclined to take the disappearance seriously. Experience tells them Timea is most likely with a boyfriend and will turn up.

When Timea’s body does turn up, floating in Regent’s Canal, the police take a brief interest, but conclude the death was suicide. They hold this opinion even more strongly once the autopsy reveals Timea was three months pregnant. Mundy rounds out her characters in a series of flashbacks to Lena, Timea, and Istvan as children, a history that convinces Lena that Timea would never kill herself. In true amateur detective form, Mundy gives Lena no choice but to embark on the investigation herself.

Mundy shows a somewhat different facet of London than we usually see and makes Lena’s situation fresh and interesting. The writing is solid, though the police detective sometimes sounds as if he’s memorized a criminology textbook. By contrast, Lena’s slight awkwardness in expression is part of the book’s charm. After all, English is a bit of a struggle for her, but she sticks with it bravely, just as she does the pursuit of Timea’s killer. A quick read without a lot of graphic violence or sex. I’ll be interested to see more from Mundy.


Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn

Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn

Not in the mood for the stunning violence of The Revenant or the bitter racism of The Hateful Eight? Nor the angst of Carol or The Danish Girl? Nor the special effects weaponry of Star Wars: The Force Awakens? Here’s a nice, sweet historical movie about first love, the pains and rewards of immigration, and the choices we make.

Brooklyn (trailer), as directed by John Crowley, with a script by Academy Award nominee Nick Hornby (based on Colm Tóibín’s book of the same name), reminds us that leaving home is a lonely choice, even when it’s the best choice a person has. (And so much harder before email, skype, and budget air fares.)

When clear-eyed Eilis Lacey (played by Academy Award nominee Saoirse Ronan) leaves Ireland to come to America in the early 1950s, she has no confidence that she’ll ever see Ireland again. In a bit of cross-cultural serendipity, she meets Italian plumber Tony (Emory Cohen), and each is charmed with the other and the cultures they come from. Watching her try to learn to eat spaghetti under the tutelage of her bantering roommates is splashily funny. But when tragedy at home calls Eilis back to Ireland, she does go, despite the length, cost, and difficulty of the journey. Once home, the inducements to stay mount.

Brooklyn—which was also an Academy Award nominee for Best Picture—has moments with “a resonance that extends far beyond its immediate circumstances,” says Glenn Kenny for Rogerebert.com. It’s a beautiful, big-hearted movie that will leave you smiling, Irish eyes or no.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 98%; audiences 90%.

Bonus treat: an interview with Colm Tóibín and Alice Walker (The Color Purple) about the translation of their novels into film, including a guide to pronouncing his name.