Onyx reviews: Cruel
as the Grave by Dean James
If anyone should know what makes a successful mystery, it is Dean James,
manager of Houston's 'Murder by the Book,' a nationally renowned mystery
bookstore. The world's most famous mystery authors are frequent visitors to the
little shop on Bissonette, where a Maltese Falcon statuette lurks from between
first editions of Chandler, Hammett and Gardner as well as contemporary writers.
Cruel as the Grave is James' first novel, a murder mystery in the
grand style of Agatha Christie but set in the American South. Maggie McLendon, a
Ph. D. student living in Houston, and her father Gerard, an English professor,
are summoned back to Gerard's family home in Jackson, Mississippi with word that
Maggie's grandfather Henry is near death. Maggie has not seen her grandfather or
anyone else in her father's family for over twenty-five years because her father
and grandfather have been estranged for reasons unknown to her.
Maggie's first surprise after they arrive in Mississippi is the discovery that
her family is hugely wealthy. In the finest Agatha Christie tradition, McLendon
Manor is enormous, lavish, and populated by an extended family full of carefully
guarded secrets. Maggie and Gerard discover on their arrival that while Henry's
health is poor, news of his impending demise has been exaggerated. Family
members have conspired to bring the two men back together while there is still
The manipulated reunion is a rousing success. By the end of their first day in
Mississippi, Gerard has smoothed over his differences with his father. Maggie is
enchanted to make the acquaintance of her long-lost family members, motley crew
that they are. Murder puts a crimp in the family gathering when someone
violently pushes Henry McLendon into an early grave. Only a member of the
household could have committed the murder, which took place while the family
watched a movie. Maggie and her great-aunt Helena are the only two potential
suspects who have alibis.
The two women take it upon themselves to delve into the mysteries held firmly by
the McLendon clan. The results of Maggie's investigation hint at another
possible murder, the death of her grandmother twenty-seven years earlier, an
event that corresponded with the last time her father and her grandfather spoke.
In English mystery tradition, the inquiry does little at first to narrow down
the list of suspects but rather reveals that everyone in the household had a
valid reason to commit the murder. The police, however, soon declare that
Maggie's father heads their list of suspects. As the past threatens to give up
all of its secrets, the killer strikes again in an effort to ward off discovery.
James does a magnificent job of reconstructing the ambience of an English
"cozy" mystery. The characters are well-drawn and fully realized. The
intricacies of the mystery are logical and Maggie and her cohorts unravel the
pieces in a logical and satisfying manner. If there is any weakness to the
story, it is that the police's suspicion of any particular character is never
seriously threatening. The police facilitate Maggie's investigation by
conducting their serial interviews to establish the minute details surrounding
the crimes and putting all of the players in their respective places.
One at a time, Maggie rattles the skeletons in the McLendon closet and pushes
the murder, who has been harboring resentment and rage for decades, to the
breaking point. The ultimate tension is whether she will be able to bring the
killer to justice before more members of the family end up dead in the cozy
drawing rooms of McLendon manor.
Web site and all contents © Copyright Bev Vincent 2007. All rights reserved.