- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 20, 2005

The four mystery novels being reviewed here take place in Concord, Mass.; Aberdeen, Scotland; an island off the coast of Alaska; and northern Virginia, in a thinly-disguised Hollin Hills, that lovely collection of glass boxes amid 110-foot trees, the only modernist housing development to my knowledge in the entire Washington metropolitan area. All give the reader a sense of place, though the reader may decide never to visit Aberdeen, Scotland.

The best of these is probably Sarah Stewart Taylor’s Judgment of the Grave (St. Martin’s Minotaur, $24.95, 322 pages). The mystery novel has gone in many directions since its roots in Poe, Doyle and Christie, and one of these directions is that of the historical mystery, which are often very sophisticated about history, as with Steven Saylor’s stories and novels about ancient Rome. Ms. Taylor’s novel is not set in the past, but it involves two disappearances (both possible murders), one in contemporary Massachusetts, the other the mysterious disappearance of a revolutionary hero after or during the Battle of the Bridge in Concord, Mass. There are parallels between the two, but these are not pushed to ridiculous extremes. The modern crimes are solved and, with the aid of historians, the older mystery is sorted out, at least as well as could be expected of something occurring 260 years ago.

Ms. Taylor’s protagonist is Sweeney St. George, a 29-year-old assistant professor of art at Harvard, whose speciality is funerary art and, if that sounds dull, it turns out not to be. I was rather amazed at what can be deduced about 17th- and 18th-century life from the carvings on gravestones, enough so that I think the book would make good supplemental reading for a course in the history of early New England.

As is usually the case in a series with an amateur detective, St. George has a professional ally, police detective Tim Quinn, whom she has hooked up with in a previous novel. But the most fascinating character in the book is a 12-year-old boy named Pres Whiting whom St. George meets in a cemetery, a child character the reader will not forget. Pres’ great-great-great-great grandfather was the revolutionary hero who disappeared. Pres is seriously ill and bald from chemotherapy, often skipping school to spend his days studying the tombstone markings his ancestors carved.

Unlike a number of mystery writers who seem to have been reared on television and forget often that a setting must be described, Ms. Taylor gives the reader a real sense of what Concord and its graveyards look like. And enough false leads appear to keep the reader guessing and reading on.



Of recent, mystery novel after mystery novel comes out of Scotland (for instance, those of the best-selling Ian Rankin), and over and over they depict such a grim vision of that country that I may never return to the home of my ancestors. But of these, Stuart MacBride’s Cold Granite (St. Martin’s Minotaur, $24.95, 458 pages), a first novel set in Aberdeen, is the grimmest. The author even goes so far in his acknowledgements to say that “Aberdeen’s really not as bad as it sounds. Trust me… .” Perhaps this statement was necessary to keep himself from being driven out of town by the citizens of Aberdeen, who are described as having “urine-colored eyes,” reeking of “mentholated cough sweets” and wearing ties “sporting…at least three of the things” they had for breakfast.” And the language of its citizens and police is hardly Presbyterian.

Among these Aberdeen citizens is a gentleman with a Ph.D. from St. Andrews University who is hired to collect road kill, which instead of destroying he has stored for years in his unused barns, even the human road kill. The search here, led by Detective Sergeant Logan McCrae is for a serial killer and mutilator of children. Although St. Martin’s Minotaur has rapidly gained a reputation for quality mystery novels, and I read this long book to its end, I frankly became bored and disgusted by it. From crime scenes to autopsies, it is as if the author has deliberately set out to make the reader nauseous, and more characters vomit in this book than in any I recall. For several good reasons, keep this book out of the hands of children.

Of the dozens of mystery novels, seen as light summer reading, that come out in the spring and early summer, I suppose I chose Sue Henry’s Murder at Five Finger Light (New American Library, $23.95, 272 pages) because I love lighthouses, just as I love cemeteries. The setting for this mystery is a three acre lighthouse island that really exists along Alaska’s Inner Passage where a group of fictional friends and acquaintances have gathered to help restore the lighthouse as a vacation residence, the light itself now having been automated and the government leasing out the island to interested citizens.

But as we learn in the first chapter, two unidentified individuals are also using the island as a hiding place for cocaine. And, as the days go by, murder (or murders) and disappearances occur. Someone or some of the host’s and hostess’ guests are not there for camaraderie.

This is the second novel in which Jesse Arnold, Sue Henry’s protagonist, a well-known dogsled racer, appears, and I must say Ms. Henry makes an island in Alaska in the fall sound very attractive. The people are afar friendlier and likeable bunch than those in Mr. MacBride’s Scotland, and their vocabularies a good deal more refined.

However the writing in thise book is sometimes awkward and the dialogue is often very stilted. It also has another flaw. One of the joys of the mystery novel is trying to figure out who the villains are. Here one or more of the villains is so thinly described and plays so little a part in the novel that such pleasure is missing.

Ann Ripley’s Summer Garden Murder (Kensington, $22, 293 pages) is the fourth featuring her PBS gardening show hostess, Louise Eldridge, who lives in Sylvan Valley, Va., known in real life as Hollin Hills, that lovely group of modern homes built in the 1950s and tucked away off Fort Hunt Road. The Safeway at Belle View Shopping Center becomes the Belle View Market; Primo’s restaurant becomes the Belle View Coffee Pub. The now-defunct Dixie Pig, which once set on the highest point in Fairfax Co., remains itself, but is described by a newspaper reporter in the novel as “the trashiest restaurant in northern Virginia.” Perhaps it was, but how I miss those fried eggs, grits and scrapple for less than five dollars.

I doubt very seriously a murder has ever occurred in Hollin Hills, for almost certainly it would be witnessed through those glass walls, but in this novel, not just one but two murdered men are found buried in Louis Eldridge’s garden, and she is the chief suspect. The physical evidence points to her, and she had a motive for one of the murders.

Her longtime neighbors make lists of the probable suspects, but it is Louise, not the neighbors or police, who finally figures it all out. Ann Ripley is also a garden columnist and, just as Lou Jane Temple (chef and mystery writer) includes recipes in her books, Ms. Ripley concludes with a gardening column on the appearance in a garden of plants you have not planted, some to be welcomed, some not. Particularly if you garden in the shade, as most people in Hollin Hills must, this is an interesting book for the gardener as well as the mystery writer.

Lloyd Shaw is a retired professor of English who spent many years living in the vicinity which Ann Ripley so well describes in “Summer Garden Mystery.”

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