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The Last Matryoshka by Joyce Yarrow
Review by Mel Jacob
Five Star Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9781594148873
Date: 17 November 2010 List Price $25.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK

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In Joyce Yarrow's latest noir mystery The Last Matryoshka, Jo Epstein, a private investigator from the Bronx receives a panicky phone call from her stepfather, Nikolai Kharpov, demanding she come at once. Relations between them have never been warm, and Jo only tolerates him for the sake of her mother. His frightening tale--two men with weapons forced him into an elevator. He expected them to kill him, but instead one man shoots the other and then forces the gun on Nikolai and makes him fire into the dead man. He fears the police will not accept his story and will charge him with murder.

Mysterious notes arrive in odd Russian dolls from a nested set, but unlike the ones made for tourists, they are bullet shaped and bear the likeness of a judge. Eventually, Jo discovers they are old and unique. A shop owner provides the name of three collectors. Jo contacts two, but calls to the third remain unanswered.

The notes in the dolls grow more threatening and culminate in the kidnapping of Jo's mother, forcing Nikolai to sacrifice his beloved violin to free her. Jo suspects he has not told her the entire truth about the murder, but when she goes to confront him she finds he has fled, probably to Russia. She follows.

Once in Russia, Jo begins a strange journey into the hinterlands and the convoluted past of her stepfather as she seeks to learn the secrets of the last matryoshka and how it relates to the murder of a young Jew in New York.

Some of the novel verges on stepping beyond reality as Jo struggles to unravel the truth of her stepfather's past life to save him from a murder charge and herself from one as an accessory. She knows only a few words of Russian and must rely on others, but doesn't know whether to trust them.

Yarrow keeps a few surprises for readers as Jo struggles in a foreign country to find her errant stepfather and solve the crime. However, some loose ends are never explained and verge on inconsistencies.

These include Nikolai's behavior, which appears erratic, especially his refusal to explain where he was just before the murder. However, his love for Jo's mother surprises her and keeps her working on his behalf. Because the reader sees Nikolai through Jo's eyes, it's difficult to judge his true nature.

Yarrow never explains why a store owner gives Jo the name of a man who died years before as a collector of old nested dolls. The enemy uses so many aliases it becomes difficult to determine who did what. These questions are not likely to trouble most readers.

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