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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 her memoirs.

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 arrival.

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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