Monday, March 25, 2013

Review: Two Lentishly Titled Mysteries

This Lent, I deliberately read these two mysteries based entirely upon their Lent-like titles. Both had likable protagonists who can go through a maelstrom without getting ruffled, but that's where the similarities ended.

Ashes to Ashes by Emma Lathen

I'd actually read this one before but had no memory of who had done the murder -- or of the details around the case, which takes place in St. Bernadette's Parish, Flensburg, Brooklyn. The Parents League want to save their school from being torn down to make way for a new apartment, going so far as to sue the Archbishop. And someone gets killed because of it.

Since the book was written in the early '70's, there are some excellent period details. Mrs. Kirk from Scarsdale picketing for the Pill was a particularly compelling character. Not that the St. Bernadette's Parents League is interested in Mrs. Kirk's campaign.

The mystery revolves around John Putnam Thatcher, Vice President of the Sloan Guaranty and Trust. Unlike many other murder-prone laypeople, Thatcher seems in every mystery to be encountering murder for the first time. It's like there's a reset button for all the characters at the Sloan with each new book. I like it that way.

Lathen's mysteries are witty and very dry (in the best sense of that word). And the books capture the foibles of the time with great compassion. The recurring cast of bankers and Wall Street types is always entertaining, and there's something soothing about the Sloan in the days before the Too Big To Fail banks leveraged us into oblivion. It's a little cozy Wall Street murder in a simpler time.

Dust to Dust by Beverly Connor

This was a new author for me, and I enjoyed the book, which moved right along through two different cases: a woman bludgeoned in her home in an apparent robbery of art and native pottery sherds, and a girl possibly murdered while trying to prove her brother's innocence.

The protagonist is a forensic archaeologist in Georgia named Diane Fallon who is the most phlegmatic person I've ever found in a mystery. She makes nice with the police department because there's no point in antagonizing them. She sighs heavily but takes her properly loaded gun with her when walking into a dangerous situation. She never seems panicked or flustered even when an armed gunman is breaking into her house. And it's not that she's super-human. She just seems...calm.

It goes with her line of work, I suppose. When the author (herself an archaeologist) describes her character doing forensic archaeology, it sounds (I have to admit) tedious. Fallon is methodical, and thankfully the author doesn't go into deep detail or I would have been bored.

But I liked the mystery and I liked Dr. Fallon. She patiently collects evidence, doesn't jump to conclusions, doesn't get herself into unnecessary jams. It's very reassuring. I don't know if Diane Fallon is like this in all her books, but I'll be happy to find out.