In twelve stories linked by the bonds of family and friendship, The Enigma of Iris Murphy captures the lives of those affected by the life and works of public defender, Iris Murphy. Characters across the United States—from Omaha to Cincinnati to the Rosebud Reservation—are forever changed by Iris Murphy, in big and small ways. Author Maureen Millea Smith carefully weaves narratives together so that tensions grow throughout the book, and the collection truly reads as a novel in stories.
The first description of Iris Murphy is on the second page of the opening story, “Pardon Palimpsest.” As Iris Murphy enters the visitation area of the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln, an inmate, Kenneth Yellow Dog, observes her:
He knows Iris Murphy to be rare and good, beautiful and generous, and inscrutable. Dressed in a tailored pink suit and pearls she appears to have stepped out of a time machine, a woman of 1956, or 1961, who has materialized into late April 2012. He knows that her patent leather pumps are undoubtedly Italian in origin and that she has chosen a wine-colored lipstick in a matte finish because it brings out the contrast in her pale skin and silver hair.
The vivid, detailed introduction to Iris Murphy in this first story prepares the reader for her quieter entrances in future stories.
One thread that contributes to the thrum of the collection is Iris Murphy’s relationship with her son, Miles. Little is revealed about her son, other than the fact that he was born out of wedlock, until the story “Kills Pretty Enemy.” In this story, Iris and Miles video chat—she from Omaha and he from Nairobi—to catch up on the latest events in each other’s lives. Their conversation is interspersed with memories that reveal how the past affects the future, as in this recollection from Iris:
“It was autumn and I was in flux and had been attracted to Cameron for years. We went straight to my apartment from the courthouse. You were conceived that evening. He left in the middle of the night. I did not hear him leave. Three months later he sent me a letter, explaining that he loved me, but he loved Elizabeth Anne, too, and that he could not see me again. He wanted to raise his daughters,” and his mom paused, looking away from him, but not tearing up. Then she added, “Cameron did not say he was sorry. Cameron is never sorry.”
Maureen Millea Smith uses moments such as this to prepare readers for climaxes in the collection, demonstrating the forethought she has put into the small details of each story.
An unexpected strength of the collection is its dip into magical realism. Kenneth Yellow Dog and his family have a special gift for understanding the feelings of animals. “They can feel the pounding of their hearts and smell the anxiety of a creature’s unhappiness. Sometimes they can outright hear an animal’s thoughts, or see an image bouncing from dog to dog, or cat to cat. It is the same with wildlife.” The family’s communication with the animals leads to another thread of tension for the collection. In subtle ways, the use of this gift reveals how the law cannot fathom abilities beyond what is already known.
The Enigma of Iris Murphy is a quiet collection of linked short stories focused on a powerful, intelligent woman. Smith’s movement from story to story allows her to draw a larger portrait of Iris Murphy, inviting readers to know the magic and strength of loving relationships.