Onyx reviews: Closer
Than the Bones by Dean James
Dean James, manager of Houston's renowned Murder By The Book,
returns with his second mystery staged in an enormous Southern manor. This time
he has promoted spinster Ernestine ("Ernie") Carpenter from the
sidekick role she played in Cruel as the Grave to nosey, outspoken,
lead sleuth. Recently retired after a lifetime career as a schoolteacher, Ernie
uses her knowledge of the local gossip in her Mississippi hometown to her
advantage as an amateur investigator. Unlicensed, her clientele comes to her via
word of mouth.
Mary Tucker McElroy, patron of the arts, hires Ernie to investigate the death of
a young poet and writer at her estate, Idlewild, six months earlier. McElroy
uses Idlewild as an artist's retreat and has reassembled the cast of visitors
who were present Christmas week when Sukey Lytton was found floating in the
pond. The death was ruled a suicide, but McElroy suspects murder. Virtually
everyone who was at Idlewild had a reasonable motive for killing Lytton. Ernie
is invited into the fold under the pretense that she is helping McElroy write
The cast of characters is quickly assembled. Moments after arriving, Ernie hears
writer Lurleen Landry threaten McElroy. Novelist Russell Bertram, prize-winning
author—in the middle of a lengthy dry spell—arrives with his infirm and
tyrannical wife Alice in tow. Alice Bertram spits venom at anyone and everyone
she meets, using her handicap to justify her behavior.
Another guest is author Brett Doran, writer of provocatively and graphically
violent novels, who spurned romantic advances from the dead girl. Finally,
during the first dinner of the weekend, appears literary agent Hamilton Packer,
malodorous, taunting the others with the manuscript for a roman a clef he has
discovered, putatively written by Sukey Lytton.
If there were ever any doubts that a murderer had been present six months
earlier, they are soon assuaged when Packer is found stabbed in his bath, the
Lytton manuscript vanished from his rooms. The knife used to kill him is
possibly the same one someone used to shred Ernie's best gown shortly after her
The police arrive to investigate, combing the house, but the manuscript is
nowhere to be found. How the bulky pile of papers was made to disappear is
almost as big a mystery as the murder itself and Ernie is sure that if she can
find out what happened to it she will be well on her way to solving the crime.
Ernie investigates, sometimes in collaboration with her former student
Lieutenant Jack Preston, but often withholding her discoveries from the police.
She soon discovers that just about everyone in Idlewild knows much more than
they are telling, including the support staff. Some secrets Ernie is unable to
extract and they go to the grave with their bearers as the killer becomes
increasingly desperate to cover his or her tracks.
The deeper she digs, with the off-site assistance of another former student,
librarian Farrah Lockett, the more convoluted the trail becomes. In a murder
investigation, everyone's past and proclivities are fair game and Ernie
discovers fresh secrets and motives for everyone present. She knows she must be
getting close when an attempt is made on her life.
Other than Hamilton Packer, who is merely an odious murder victim waiting to be
killed, James has created a small but interestingly diverse cast of suspicious
characters. Ernie Carpenter is not a Miss Marple clone; far from it—she is a
lively and alert investigator who, one suspects, will show up in another James
mystery in the near future.
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