The Maid by Nita Prose
Devotees of cozy mysteries, rejoice: Nita Prose's debut, The Maid, satisfies on every level — from place to plot to protagonist.
In a fancy urban hotel, a guest lies dead, and the main suspect is Molly Gray, a member of the cleaning staff whose devotion to her work is matched only by her love for her deceased grandmother.
Let the locked-room hijinks begin!
The above storyline would be enough for a solid read, but Prose dials up the tension by creating a realistically different heroine. Molly Gray is neurodivergent, and may even have Autism spectrum disorder, not that Molly uses either of those terms. She tells us how she copes with the world. "I like things simple and neat," says Molly, who cleans "twenty-plus rooms" at the Regency Grand, "a five-star boutique hotel."
"Never in my life did I think I'd hold such a lofty position in a grand hotel," she says, also sharing that without Gran, "It's as though all the color has been drained from the apartment we shared." Work remains a respite, a place where Molly has responsibilities and a routine. "I love cleaning, I love my maid's trolley, and I love my uniform." Prose makes a wise choice in Molly's first-person narration, allowing readers to enter Molly's world, where a well-stocked maid's trolley is "a portable sanitation miracle." You'll nod at Molly's observations about the proper order in which to tackle a suite ("from top to bottom") and using different cloths for sink and toilet.
Molly knows that she sees things differently. "The truth is, I often have trouble with social situations; it's as though everyone is playing an elaborate game with complex rules they all know, but I'm always playing for the first time," she says. All of this information about Molly is important to have before the actual murder, because Molly's "trouble with social situations" will both complicate matters, and result in her eventual triumph.
A word about the location of the Regency Grand before we proceed. Nita Prose is vice president and editorial director at Simon & Schuster Canada (one reason why her mastery of voice and plot is so assured; she's clearly an excellent editor). We're never explicitly told that The Maid takes place in Toronto; understanding its author's Canadian background will help readers understand why Molly's Gran is decidedly British in tastes and diction, but no one ever questions those things.
One of the reasons Molly loves her job so much is that it allows her to bypass her social miscommunications and "blend in." Even the day after her beloved Gran dies, she heads into work. But nine months later, on one of Molly's shifts, she finds a Mr. Black "very dead in his bed."
Everything that happens next will occur because Molly follows her strict rules and does not clean the Blacks' bathroom, as Mrs. Black (Giselle) was taking a shower. Remember: Molly does not pick up on cues easily. The fact that Giselle Black hopped in the shower just after Molly arrived, and before Molly discovered Mr. Black dead, doesn't register. "I did not allow her behavior to interfere with the task at hand," says Molly.
While some readers may guess who the killer is immediately, it doesn't really matter, as the book is more about Molly — who does not. There are other things happening around Molly that she misses, too, including a crime ring that relies on an undocumented immigrant's fears of deportation. Molly takes things at face value, which costs her something. However, taking things at face value is also one of Molly's strengths, and it ultimately allows her to help authorities catch a killer and a kingpin. So what if her idea of haute cuisine is a Tour of Italy platter from The Olive Garden? Molly takes her pleasures at face value, too, and knows that something cheese-y isn't always cheesy.
The delight of reading The Maid lies partly in watching a hectic cast of characters unravel (take special pleasure in watching Rodney Stiles, the hotel head bartender on whom Molly has a crush) as the crime is properly solved. It also lies in seeing Molly learn that thinking differently does not equal giving up friendship or high standards. What begins as a sprightly murder mystery turns into a meaningful, and at times even delicate, portrait of growth.
The Maid will start your 2022 reading off right. Here's hoping Molly Gray, the smart and affecting hotel maid, appears in a new book soon.
Bethanne Patrick is a freelance writer and critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.