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Can ‘The Mystery Guest’ live up to its predecessor? Review by the Washington Post

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Molly Gray, the heroine of “The Mystery Guest,” has inherited a trove of chipper maxims from her late grandmother, known as Gran, but the one she repeats most often is this gem about making hasty assumptions: “When you assume, you make an A-S-S out of U and ME.”

I thought of that wisdom after I read “The Mystery Guest” and, then, went back and read its predecessor, “The Maid,” the best-selling 2022 novel by Nita Prose in which Molly made her debut. (Florence Pugh is to produce and star in the screen adaptation.) As someone whose tastes in mysteries skew toward the hard-boiled, I initially passed on “The Maid” because I assumed that a story featuring a hotel maid as an amateur detective was going to be stuffed with heartwarming fluff. Heartwarming, yes; but the only fluff in the Maid Novels, as this series is now called, is the deluxe filler in the pillows of the five-star Regency Grand Hotel where Molly works.

Charming as the world of these mysteries can be, they’re also informed by tough truths about the routine humiliations of service employees like Molly and Gran. In their acute class-conscious commentary, Prose’s Maid Novels are worthy successors to Barbara Neely’s four award-winning Blanche White mysteries, featuring a middle-aged Black domestic worker rendered invisible to her mostly White employers, not only by her profession but by her race. Neely, who died in 2020, was recognized as a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America that same year.

As Prose’s many fans already know, Molly is a sensitive young woman who processes the world differently. She’s hyper-attentive to details like, say, a tiny smudge on a TV remote. This single-minded focus makes Molly an excellent maid, but she’s not so sharp when it comes to reading people or catching the undertones of conversations. Amused by her diligence and demeanor, Molly’s meaner fellow employees at the Regency Grand mock her with names like “Roomba the Robot.”

“The Mystery Guest,” however, finds Molly in a better position, professionally and personally, than she was a few years earlier. She’s been promoted to head maid and she’s happily living with Juan Manuel, the sweet kitchen worker who had fallen into the grip of a predatory co-worker in the earlier novel. Juan is visiting his family in Mexico, so he’s not on hand to help in this outing, which finds Molly confronting a real mess: the death of a famous mystery writer, J.D. Grimthorpe, who keeled over while he was signing books at a reception at the Regency Grand. Foul play is involved.

The Mystery Guest by Nita Prose

To make matters even more muddled, Molly spent a fair bit of time with Grimthorpe when she was a child, because Gran worked as a housemaid for him and his wife. In alternating flashback chapters, we learn that Gran was forced to take Molly along with her to the Grimthorpe mansion after bullying by Molly’s classmates — and even some of her teachers — became intolerable. The scene where Gran, with young Molly in tow, must bow and scrape before the censorious Mrs. Grimthorpe will resonate with anyone who’s ever had to bring their child into a less-than-welcoming workplace.

Although young Molly and Grimthorpe became unlikely friends, he fails to recognize her at that fatal reception at the Regency Grand, even when she steps in front of him to have her copy of his latest book signed. (“How was it possible that I remembered everything about him but he did not remember me?”) Because of their proximity to the victim and the murder weapon, Molly and her protégé — a nervous young woman named Lily Finch — become the prime suspects of the police investigation. Molly is also troubled by the strange behavior of her good friend Mr. Preston, the doorman at the Regency. As she digs deeper into the past to ferret out the truth about Grimthorpe and his murder, Molly also despairs of her own limitations. “I was afraid of myself, of my infinite capacity for understanding things too late.”

Throughout this novel and its predecessor, Prose vividly depicts working people stuck in tight places with no easy exits. As Gran told Molly when she was a little girl, her eyes filling with tears, “You deserve better, but I don’t know what else to do.” The fact that our narrator Molly, even as an adult, can’t quite give voice to the emotions she’s recalling or witnessing adds poignancy to these moments.

“The Mystery Guest” isn’t as intricately plotted as its superb predecessor, but Prose scatters enough revelations throughout this tale to keep tension on a moderate setting. Besides, the characters of Molly and her beloved Gran, women who are overlooked because of the kind of work they do, are the overwhelming draw of the Maid Novels. In this affecting and socially pointed mystery series, invisibility becomes the superpower of the pink-collared proletariat.

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