It’s a Mystery: Funeral Music, by Morag Joss

Funeral Music

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Funeral Music is the introductory volume to the Sara Selkirk Mysteries. Sara is a world renowned cellist who has lost her will to perform following the sudden death of her husband. But that is not the mystery in Funeral Music. Sara’s well meaning friend and accompanist, James, cajoles her into playing a charity concert at Bath’s famous Pump Room, after which she makes a horrifying discovery. Someone has stabbed to death the museum curator, dumping his corpse into the Roman baths, and Sara is the first to find him. He wasn’t a very popular or principled individual, and there are any number of possible suspects. The investigation falls to Sara’s cello pupil, DCI Andrew Poole. The plot thickens when Andrew falls for her, and when James becomes a suspect.

This is a simple enough plot with enough interest to permit its competition with the setting, the spectacular city of Bath. Each of the main suspects is given his or her own chapters, and it doesn’t become clear who did it until very close to the end. Along the way, a couple of imaginative yet believable alibis liven things up, but one of those alibis proves to be a cover. I was truly surprised when the murderer was finally revealed. Will Sara return to the concert stage? The answer to that question is left a bit unclear.

A genuine mystery, a cast of engaging (and not so engaging) characters, and an appealing protagonist make this book a quick and pleasant way to spend a few evenings.

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It’s a Mystery: The Haunting of Maddy Clare, by Simone St. James

The Haunting of Maddy Clare

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

England, in the aftermath of The Great War. Few soldiers who fought in France returned unscathed, and Alastair Gellis and Matthew Ryder are no exceptions. Deeply affected by their experiences in the killing fields of France, they have decided to make a study of death and the afterlife by researching and writing about spirit manifestations. Their current case involves trying to rid the Falmouth House barn of its angry, often violent ghost, that of a servant girl, Maddy, who hanged herself there several years ago. Because of some girlhood trauma, Maddy cannot abide men, so Alastair arranges to hire a female assistant. Sarah Piper ekes out a living as an employee of a temp agency, so when she’s sent to interview with Alastair, she cannot resist the chance for a bit of adventure, not realizing that much more will be required of her than simple transcription.

Simone St. James’s description of Sarah’s first encounter with Maddy is atmospheric and chilling, and she spins out this tale in an effective Gothic style. The ghost hunting team quickly recognizes that, before they can hope to calm Maddy and send her on her way, they must ferret out the source of her terrible rage. Interestingly, each of the three comes to encounter her in very different ways, and by comparing their experiences, they begin to tease out the truth. The author enlivens the remote country village setting with good period detail and an array of very English characters, ranging from the new owner of the manor house to the suspicious inn keeper to the surly churchyard sexton. Having recently read, enjoyed, and reviewed Bellman and Black, in which crows play a prominent and symbolic role, it was pleasantly surprising to me to encounter crows in this book as well, fulfilling an even more active function. Maddy’s ghostly behaviors are anything but trite, and while Sarah’s budding romance (I won’t say with whom) could easily have detracted from the book’s central theme, it was well integrated into the plot as a whole. Alastair, Matthew, Sarah, and Maddy herself emerge from their brief but intense relationship quite changed.

The Haunting of Maddy Clare is an impressive debut novel. If it has an outstanding flaw, it is that some of the characters telegraphed their implication in Maddy’s mystery. But the overlying ghost story maintained its appeal, and readers who enjoy modern Gothic will probably enjoy this book.

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It’s a Mystery: W is for Wasted, by Sue Grafton

W is for Wasted (Kinsey Millhone #23)

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 

W is for Wasted is the 23rd in the Kinsey Millhone series. Twenty third! While most series and their characters grow stale after a while, that’s far from the case with Kinsey. To say Sue Grafton has honed her craft is an understatement. Among her many awards are the Grand Master Award from Mystery Writers of America, and Bouchercon’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Over the years, I’ve read and enjoyed novels A through V, but W is her masterpiece.

Kinsey’s now 38, still unattached, still living the simple life with few encumbrances. And it’s still the 80’s in her home town of Santa Teresa, CA. As the book opens, she’s asked to identify a dead homeless man who carried her name and number in his pocket, but she’s never met him before. Since she’s between cases, Kinsey’s always active curiosity spurs her to find out what she can about the man. She also learns of the death of a sleazy PI whom she did know but didn’t like or trust. Too much free time can be a dangerous thing when you’re K.M.

Author Grafton incorporates the usual stock characters, whom her readers have come fondly to know well, and adds some interesting new ones, especially Ed the cat, some heretofore unknown cousins, and a trio of homeless people who lead her on quite an adventure. This is an intricate plot written on several levels with several disparate threads, and it’s a joy to observe how deftly Grafton is able to consolidate them by book’s end. It’s impossible to decide whether plotting or characterization, dialogue or description, is her outstanding forte, she’s so good at them all. If you like mysteries and haven’t yet had the pleasure of meeting Kinsey Millhone, treat yourself to W is for Wasted. It’s not necessary, though it is fun, to read this series in order. Sue Grafton’s Grand Master and Lifetime Achievement Awards, and all the others she’s been presented over the years, are richly deserved.

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Intriguing Nonfiction: The Hermit in the Garden, by Gordon Campbell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sometimes it really is true that fact is stranger than fiction. You know those little men in the pointy hats that we generally refer to as garden gnomes? They now have a history. You know those classical little “folly” buildings that dot the stately English garden landscape? Well, it turns out that some of these were not strictly decorative.  Gordon Campbell, a Professor of Renaissance Studies at the University of Leicester, has published The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome , the first book to describe the phenomenon of the ornamental hermit in Georgian England.

Professor Campbell believes that during the Reformation, the ancient custom of religious persons, sometimes called hermits,  choosing to shut themselves away from the world for constant prayer and meditation came to an end with the dissolution of the great religious houses.   During the 18th century, it became fashionable among the educated and the elite to be “melancholy”, devoting time to the admiration of nature and the study of philosophy. Gradually, some began constructing small rustic cottages, to use as retreats for deep thinking, or, in many cases, to impress visitors with their erudition. It wasn’t long before the wealthy began to  hire men to live in their garden “hermitage”, pretending to be a reclusive but romantic part of the landscape. Although this book is a serious and impressive work of research, Professor Campbell injects threads of humor where appropriate, as when he describes the difficulties inherent in finding men willing to don rough robes, go barefooted, allow their hair, beards, and nails to grow, and, perhaps hardest of all, remain silent, for a period of seven years.

Much of the book is a survey of historic and modern “hermitages” in England, Scotland, France, and parts of Europe, many of which are illustrated. There are numerous extant sites that can still be visited, though they’re no longer inhabited; health regulations prohibit! It ends with some speculation about how the ornamental garden hermit morphed slowly into the ornamental garden gnome, helped along by Disney’s Grumpy, Sleepy, et al.

It’s probably safe to say that there is no  more extensive compilation of information on this topic than The Hermit in the Garden. It’s a valuable addition to the field of garden history, and has much to say, or imply, about Western Civ.

Now I must search out the perfect gnome for my own garden.

It’s a Mystery: Sacrifice, by S. J. Bolton

SacrificeSacrifice by S.J. Bolton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The British Isles are replete with folklore, and in the remoteness of the Shetland Islands, natives still tell tales about the Trows, little grey men who fear iron, love silver, and reside in the rolling hillsides. For their race to continue, the Trows must mate with human females. S. J. Bolton, whose given name is Sharon, builds her debut mystery around these legends to great effect.

Tora Hamilton is an OB/Gyn who relocates with her husband, who was born there, to the Shetlands. She enjoys her job at the local hospital, but finds island life rather isolating, especially when her husband’s off on one of his frequent business trips. It’s never been easy for Tora to make friends, and she still hasn’t achieved her dream of motherhood. She gets the shock of her life when she unearths the corpse of a woman in the peaty pasture where she rides her horses. With horror, she discovers that the woman, definitely not a prehistoric bog body, has a hole in her chest where her heart used to be. Equally disturbing, there are strange runes carved upon the victim’s back. When the autopsy reveals that the woman had given birth shortly before death, Tora is driven to find out what happened to her.

And so the story unfolds. The initial creepiness grows exponentially, as Tora refuses to take the advice of locals to leave well enough alone. It isn’t long before some grisly threats are made, which only serve to strengthen her resolve. Soon she finds herself in a deeply frightening “who do you trust” situation, until one of the policewomen on the case, equally suspicious, befriends her. Ms. Bolton makes effective use of the ambience of the Shetlands, embellishing the natural setting with a mysterious, private maternity hospital, some uncanny personal encounters, a pair of sinister in-laws, and the ever changing sea. All of which lead right up to an edge- of- your- seat, jaw clenching culmination and resolution.

It’s always been difficult for me to accept the suicidal choices that thriller characters make, and the motives attributed to the killers in this book never make total sense either. But Ms. Bolton has been compared as an author to no less than P.D. James, and after reading and experiencing Sacrifice, that seems fair to me.

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Monday Morning Poem: Starlings in Winter

by Mary Oliver (1935 –   )

Chunky and noisy,
but with stars in their black feathers,
they spring from the telephone wire
and instantly
they are acrobats
in the freezing wind.
And now, in the theater of air,
they swing over buildings,
dipping and rising;
they float like one stippled star
that opens,
becomes for a moment fragmented,
then closes again;
and you watch
and you try
but you simply can’t imagine
how they do it
with no articulated instruction, no pause,
only the silent confirmation
that they are this notable thing,
this wheel of many parts, that can rise and spin
over and over again,
full of gorgeous life.
Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us,
even in the leafless winter,
even in the ashy city.
I am thinking now
of grief, and of getting past it;
I feel my boots
trying to leave the ground,
I feel my heart
pumping hard. I want
to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.

Gothic Fiction: Bellman & Black, by Diane Setterfield

Years ago, offering career advice, my aunt Jean said you couldn’t go wrong providing food or funeral services, since we all need to eat and all have to die. Though I did not follow her words of wisdom, they came drifting back to me while reading Bellman & Black, Diane Setterfield’s second novel. This author is well known for her much praised The Thirteenth Tale, which I agree was spell binding, and many reviewers complain that this new book is nothing like the first. It is different for sure, but such an intricate and beautifully written novel deserves to be judged upon its own merits.

B&B chronicles the life of William Bellman, the disinherited  grandson of a wealthy English textile manufacturer. The novel opens with a vignette from his childhood, when, showing off for his buddies, Will thoughtlessly kills a rook with his slingshot. The boys examine the bird and are mesmerized by the subtle colors that shimmer within the blackness of its plumage, while the other rooks, generally so raucous, observe them in silence. A sense of guilt causes Will a troubled night. Because of this incident, however, he will grow up with a fine sense of color in all of its variations, and will serve him well when his uncle invites him to join the family business. Will rises to manager and then mill owner, marries and has several children, and life is good, until a series of deaths decimate his friends and destroy his family. Distraught and depressed, he decides to kill himself too, but is stopped by the presence of a mysterious stranger dressed entirely in black, who, in a very few words, inspires Will to start a new business, the production and sale of all things funeral related.

Bellman and Black, running only to 300 and some pages, is a great big chocolate trifle of a novel. Even the title has multiple layers of meaning. Even the rooks interject their own voices. The reader follows the wide parabola of Will’s life with a sense of helplessness, as the once sociable young man becomes an obsessive, ascetic workaholic, riddled with guilt and descending into a sort of living death. And while the trope of death is always present, the book is filled with metaphors that slip seamlessly and quietly into the narrative, most of them deriving, once you think about it, from that fateful introductory vignette. B&B’s ending, which some find tragic, is actually quite apt and beautiful, peaceful in its own way.

B&B owes allegiance to such authors as Dickens, Poe, and Charlotte Bronte, but it is definitely Ms. Setterfield’s own impressive creation. Read it thoughtfully, and you’ll never regard birds of the crow persuasion in the same light again.