By Laura Childs
Berkley Prime Crime, 2011 (October 4, 2011)
Carmela Bertrand is a busy woman of almost 30 who runs her own scrapbooking shop, MEMORY MINE in the French Quarter of New Orleans. In this ninth entry in Laura Childs’ mystery series, the trouble begins when Carmela accompanies her friend Ava, who volunteers on the Angel Auxiliary, to place a hand-lettered sign inside St. Tristan’s Church. Choir practice had just ended when Carmela and Ava watch in horror as a brown hooded figure struggles with their scrapbooking friend Byrle. The brown figure takes a crucifix from Byrle and leaves her in a dead heap on the ground.
Carmela is dating Detective Edgar Babcock on the New Orleans police force. However, wealthy friend and scrapbooker “Baby” Fontaine (so named during her sorority days), has asked Carmela to look into the matter. Carmela simply can’t wait for the authorities to investigate, so she asks Ava to go back to St. Tristan’s with her. Early the next morning they search St. Tristan’s spooky basement for another exit that the hooded figure might have taken after killing Byrle. They see some strange things including a cloak room full of brown robes and Brother Paul, an odd, secretive man who fades back into the shadows.
“Baby” Fontaine also talks Carmela into decorating the large house she received in her divorce settlement from Shamus for the upcoming HoliDazzle tour of homes in the Garden District. Still finding it distasteful to be inside the house, Carmela hires her friend and designer Jekyl Hardy to decorate the somewhat empty house. Carmela is busy planning and attending the launch of Quigg Brevard’s St. Jammany Vineyard. She arranges a gala occasion at the Belle Vie Hotel and invites everybody who is anybody plus all the press.
To top things off Carmela must prepare to teach a calligraphy class the next day, so Gabby, her employee at Memory Mine, gathers all the supplies. (This is when we learn that the skeleton letters, which are relatively simple, are the most important to master in calligraphy.) It is becoming increasingly apparent just how busy Carmela must be!
Yet still, she and Ava continue their clandestine investigation. Next they visit the outreach center for the homeless that Brother Paul runs. They even end up working in the kitchen and serving one meal to those less fortunate. It convinces them that Brother Paul may not be so strange after all. Until they return the next night and find his body hanging in his tiny apartment.
Carmela’s boyfriend, the detective, wants to know what the heck she was doing out on the edge of town at a soup kitchen. Ava makes things worse telling him they’d been nearby checking out a cult called The Seekers, whose members all wear brown robes. Detective Babcock about goes ballistic and sends the ladies away with warnings not to interfere again and a police escort. Within the hour the local news is reporting on Brother Paul’s death and Carmela’s discovery of the body, pointedly saying that she was at both murders. Clearly there’s a leak to the news somewhere that needs to be plugged.
Colorful characters abound. There’s Marilyn Casey, the wannabe author who is interviewing everyone in town as she writes a mystery based on these real life events. Ava’s new psychic Madame Eldora Blavatsky reads her crystal ball and sees pieces of Byrle’s murder. Norton Fried, the choir director, in the church moments before Byrle’s death, has a collection of crucifixes. This makes him suspect since a crucifix found during the nearby archaeological dig is exactly what Byrle struggled to hold on to. One of Carmela’s old neighbors, Rain Monroe, also collects crosses, yet it is daggers she has for Carmela when they arrive at Baby’s home for the mayor’s Cultural Advisory Board. Drew Gaspar is trying to make a success of his Purgatoria restaurant full of church and graveyard castoffs as well as his clothing line Voodoo Couture. Gaspar can’t resist asking Ava, owner of a voodoo-themed shop, to be his muse and try on all the clothes. She couldn’t have been happier.
I could go on and on with the large cast of characters, and characters they are. Some simply help to fill in the storyline, some serve as suspects. One might actually be the killer. Even tho many characters were not crucial to the plot, they served to round out the story and keep the book from slipping into that “what if” syndrome that some mysteries seem to do. It drives me crazy when in the midst of the action, a book slows to a halt with a series of “what if” questions. I guess they are supposed to introduce what the main character is musing about or perhaps new ideas, but it’s a pet peeve of mine to see a story start to wallow in its own questions. Thankfully, there was only a paragraph or two like this, and they fit in well. The characters set up the rest of the questions with their actions and conversations.
I enjoyed SKELETON LETTERS very much. I was rather surprised at all the subplots woven into the main storyline. Some were quite important and some were not. I didn’t know until the end which were window dressing and which really mattered. As busy as this made the entire story, nothing seemed out of place or contrived. Carmela has the unique opportunity to be involved in the business world via her scrapbook shop as well as the crème of society via her home ownership in the Garden District of New Orleans. Her circle of friends is large and varied via both venues.
This is the ninth entry in this series, but I don’t feel that reading the previous eight was crucial to enjoying the ninth. It would fill in a bit more about the characters, but the story was clear without having read the previous entries. Laura Childs, a pseudonym for Gerry Schmitt, also writes the Tea Shop mystery series and the Cackleberry Club mysteries.
There were several scrapbook and craft ideas presented by Carmela at Memory Mine. They were good tips and integrated well into the story. Several were also presented at the end of the book. The recipes that Carmela made were also given at the end. I find this approach much more likable than a list of ingredients smack in the middle of the story!
Carmela’s employee, Gabby, sums up the character Carmela when she says, “That’s what kills me about you. You’re fearless to the core and outspoken without being a diva. … And you have a keen sense of justice.” I’d say she said it just right!