First-time mystery novelist D.S. Saunders succeeds like a seasoned pro at grabbing her readers and keeping them guessing until the final pages of The Rule of Two. There are enough genuine surprises and plot twists to satisfy the most demanding fans of the genre. The author wastes no time in setting the stage with a suspicious after-hours death at the city zoo in Century, Tennessee on Halloween night. The victim is Robert Forrester, curator of birds, whose corpse is discovered lying inexplicably at the bottom of a pool of water inside the hippo cage. Before introducing the story’s sleuthing protagonists, Saunders gives a behind-the-scenes tour of zoo bureaucracy and city politics. Along the way we meet one potential suspect after another. Everyone, it seems, has something to hide.
Enter Maggie and Jake Martin, retired educators. Maggie is a former Century High School librarian, while Jake was unceremoniously forced into retirement from his job as the school’s principal. Married for forty-nine years, the couple now devote endless volunteer hours to the zoo as tour guides for the busloads of eager schoolchildren and other groups that arrive daily to visit the animals. When the Martins take an interest in solving the puzzle of the bird curator’s death, they uncover a series of clues missed by the plodding police detectives. Soon Maggie and Jake’s lives are endangered. Saunders, to her credit, resists the easy temptation to portray the Martins as stereotypical AARP overachievers. Herself a retired English teacher, the author has created two energetic senior citizens who aren’t ashamed to act their age.
The Martins are such engaging characters that when they’re taken hostage during the novel’s harrowing midsection, our response to the peril is to feel protective of the couple’s safety. Maggie’s incarceration triggers a long-suppressed memory of childhood trauma. “Jake mustn’t ever hear that story,” she tells herself, worried that she “would look weak in his eyes.” It’s a dark detour for the novel to take, but the episode is sensitively written and it deepens our empathy. Not that there’s much time for Maggie to dwell in the past. Her disturbing recollection is followed by a face-to-face encounter with a man-eating tiger, as if her unconscious fears had suddenly sprung to life and grown teeth and claws.
The subplots are cleverly designed. A teenage babysitter’s disappearance and a missing dog become motifs that reappear throughout the story. The dog’s owner is Clara Pentean, a retired teacher and a friend of the Martins. Clara storms the police station in the book’s funniest scene and demands assistance in finding her pet. Told that the missing teenager is a higher priority, Clara enlists the Martins in locating the teen as a ploy to expedite the search for her dog. Once the novel’s complications and climaxes begin to mount, Saunders sometimes has to resort to characters explaining themselves in dialogue top-heavy with exposition. It’s not an uncommon blemish in debut novels. In The Rule of Two the charm and exuberance of the narrative easily surmount minor infelicities of style.
The Rule of Two takes its title from the zoo’s policy of never permitting an employee to enter an animal’s cage unless accompanied by a second employee to stand watch in case of trouble. The title is also a metaphor for Maggie and Jake’s venerable partnership. As incipient crime-solvers, their two heads are definitely better than one. Their banter is often endearing, even when an exasperated Maggie has had her fill of Jake’s aphoristic quotations from his late Uncle Bud (“You can’t unscramble eggs”; “Don’t try to remove a fly from your forehead with a hatchet”; “We don’t trip on mountains, we trip on molecules”). Two future novels featuring the Martins are promised. The Rule of Two is a delightful beginning to the series.
– Bob Wake