by Charlotte MacLeod
When the Kelling family vault is opened up the day before Great-Uncle Frederick’s funeral, Sarah and her cousin Dolph make a stunning discovery: a corset-clad skeleton in high black boots with tiny chips of rubies sparkling from the teeth.
The skeleton turns out to be that of a mean-spirited exotic dancer named Ruby Redd, who has been missing nearly 30 years. The discovery rattles long-held family secrets.
Soon, however, it’s not just Great-Uncle Frederick and Ruby Redd who are dead. Sarah’s husband, Alex, and his imperious blind and deaf mother Caroline, die when Alex’s beloved vintage electric car speeds down a hill and over a cliff. For Sarah, the accident is unimaginable given Alex’s tender care of the car and his decades of experience driving it.
Is it coincidence that Alex and Caroline die so soon after Ruby’s corpse is discovered in the family vault — or is there a connection? As it turns out, the deaths are only the beginning of baffling revelations.
The appeal of this cozy mystery is its light-hearted literate style and its cast of eccentric characters. The Kellings are an old Boston family with a dwindling supply of old money and estates-full of quirks, traditions and expectations. One such tradition is cousins marrying cousins; Sarah and Alex are actually fifth cousins once removed. Another is keeping up appearances even when a family is sinking under the financial burden of maintaining big houses and summer estates.
Sarah, who is in her mid-20s, has been treated like an inconsequential child even after her marriage. She’s more than ready to declare her independence even if it raises family eyebrows. With the help of investigator Max Bittersohn, she rips away the curtains that have been hiding the family secrets.
This novel is rich in plot twists and turns. The characters are fun and Charlotte MacLeod treats them respectfully. She has been called the “American Agatha Christie,” but she doesn’t take herself as seriously as Agatha did.
While I’m not a fan of cozy mysteries because they so often are trivial and lightweight, I would definitely keep reading this series because Sarah and Max are so likable and engaging.
This book is the first of a series featuring Sarah and Max. The others that follow are:
- The Withdrawing Room (1981). Sarah has launched a boarding house in her stately Back Bay brownstone. All is going well — until her boarders start dying. She turns to art-fraud investigator Max to help find answers.
- The Palace Guard (1982). Sarah and Max are standing on a balcony at a third-rate museum after a second-rate concert when something goes hurtling past them. The museum has been robbed of priceless paintings and a guard killed and pushed off the side of the building.
- The Bilbao Looking Glass (1983). Sarah and Max have gone to her Ireson’s Landing home for the summer while Sarah ponder’s Max’s proposal of marriage. When they arrive, they find a rare, valuable, antique Spanish mirror that Sarah has never seen before.
- The Convivial Codfish (1984). When Sarah’s Uncle Jem gets an opportunity to host the yuletide festivities of the Comrades of the Convivial Codfish, he’s elated. But after a night of eating, drinking and spirited “bah, humbugs,” he discovers that his ceremonial codfish necklace of office has vanished. It seems to be a practical joke until Jem takes a tumble that breaks his hip.
- The Plain Old Man (1985). The theft of a priceless family portrait doesn’t stop Sarah’s Aunt Em’s annual production of a Gilbert & Sullivan opera. The show must go on, after all. But then a member of the cast dies suddenly. Sarah suspects murder and begins to worry that Aunt Em won’t make it to her final bow.
- The Recycled Citizen (1988). Sarah and Max are expecting. Her Uncle Dolph is about to be framed for the death of a resident at one of his homeless centers. Pregnancy notwithstanding, Sarah and Max jump into to clear Dolph’s name before the family name is tainted.
- The Silver Ghost (1988). Sarah and Max are heading to the Massachusetts coast to track down the person who stole a client’s 1927 New Phantom Rolls Royce. Their investigation is taking place as the same time as an annual Renaissance fair. Donning period dress and joining the crowds, Sarah and Max discover a corpse.
- The Gladstone Bag (1989). Sarah’s lively Aunt Emma takes off for an artists’ retreat on Pocapuk Island in Maine. The participants, learning that treasure is said to be buried on the island, go crazy digging to find it. It soon results in theft, drugging and a murder. While Sarah and Max give assistance by phone, Aunt Emma is left with the leg work.
- The Resurrection Man (1992). By accident, Max bumps into the fabulous and criminal Countess Lydia Ouspenska who when he last saw her was forging miniature Byzantine masterpieces. Now she’s taken up with master art forger Bartolo Arbalest, who has established a “restoration” guild. When the guild’s clients start dying, Max realizes there’s more at stake than fake art.
- The Odd Job (1995). Years before, Sarah and Max had nabbed the crooks who took dozens of priceless paintings from the Wilkins Museum. Getting the art back was harder, and the museum’s prized Titian is still lost. The new director is getting loudly impatient — then members of his staff start dying and old secrets come to light.
- The Balloon Man (1998). This story circles back to family jewels discovered missing in The Family Vault. Sarah is planning Max’s nephew’s wedding when missing Kelling jewels turn up among the wedding gifts. Max takes a shovel blow while questioning a talkative burglar.
About the Author: Charlotte MacLeod (1922 – 2005)
Born in Canada, Charlotte MacLeod was brought to the United States a year later and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1951.
She attended the Art Institute of Boston and worked as a copy writer for Stop and Shop Supermarkets in Boston during the late 1940s and early 1950s. Eventually, she joined the staff of N.H. Miller & Co., an advertising agency. She stayed there until she retired in 1982, rising to the rank of vice president.
In her free time, she began writing mysteries and eventually published 30. Most of her books are set in New England, although a few set in Canada were published under the pen name Alisa Craig.
A lady-like woman, MacLeod often wore hats and gloves. When she wrote, she wore a bathrobe so she wouldn’t be tempted to pop out to run an errand. She kept to a schedule of writing beginning at 6 a.m. and then in the afternoon working on rewrites. Her sister and business manager, Alexandria Baxter, typed and proofread her manuscripts.
She wrote several series, including one featuring Professor Peter Shandy and a second featuring Sarah Kelling and Max Bittersohn of Beacon Hill. Writing as Alisa Craig, she wrote mysteries featuring Madoc Rhys of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. She also wrote a series featuring Dittany Henbit Monk of the Lobelia Falls Grub-and-Stakers Gardening & Roving Club.
She was a co-founder and past president of the American Crime Writers League. She won the 1992 Bouchercon XXII Lifetime Achievement Award. Her book, The Corpse in Oozak’s Pond (1987), received a Nero Award and was nominated for an Edgar Award.
MacLeod died of Alzheimer’s in Maine in January 2005.