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Dead Reckoning

Book Review: Mansions of the Dead


Published September 29, 2004 at 7:07 p.m.

When it comes to ingenious ways of mourning the dead, the Victorians sure had us beat. In the opening pages of Hartland author Sarah Stewart Taylor's new mystery, a young widow in 1863 Boston fingers the "hairwork" necklace she's made to commemorate her rich husband. "By working the locks of hair around a mold to make twenty intricately netted balls and then stringing them together, she had been able to make a necklace that reached the third button of her dress," Taylor writes.

After this prologue, the novel's action shifts promptly to the present-day, where the hair in the brooch serves an unforeseen purpose -- as potential DNA evidence in a murder investigation. But whatever the twists of Taylor's plot, she always returns to the central question of how and why we mourn.

Death is also a fixation for Taylor's amateur detective protagonist, Sweeney St. George -- a willowy, redheaded art history professor with a formidable back story. In Taylor's debut novel, O' Artful Death, Sweeney's fascination with an anachronistic marble tombstone plunged her into the shady secrets of an artists' colony in Vermont. For the sequel, Taylor has moved her action to the Boston area, where Sweeney teaches a seminar on "Mourning Objects" at a university -- unnamed, but clearly Harvard. When one of her students is found suffocated, his body adorned with pieces of Victorian jewelry, Sweeney resumes her role as an inspired meddler in official police investigations.

Mansions of the Dead is infused with the Victorian moodiness of Cambridge's Mount Auburn Cemetery -- its centerpiece setting. Mount Auburn was one of the first "garden cemeteries," Sweeney tells her students. It's a living demonstration of 19th-century Americans' predilection to bury their loved ones in pastoral settings they saw as "places for spiritual refreshment and melancholy contemplation."

But murdered Brad Putnam, scion of a Boston brahmin family, seems to have found something troubling among his ancestors' graves. Not long before his death, he hinted to Sweeney that he had "come across information that could maybe hurt someone." His comment takes on sinister meaning when Sweeney noses into the provenance of the jewelry found on Brad's corpse.

As she did in O' Artful Death, Taylor thickens the intrigue in Mansions by putting Sweeney simultaneously on the trail of two mysteries -- one in the past, one in the present -- and by introducing a whole pageant of suspicious characters. The Putnam family, which is Kennedy-like in its closed-mouthed loyalty, includes an alcoholic patriarch and his estranged wife, a precocious congressional candidate, a stuffed-shirt Yuppie couple and a handsome, dissolute sculptor. The family's already been blacklisted by police in Newport for refusing to divulge who was at the wheel in a fatal drunk-driving accident. Delving into the Putnams' past, Sweeney finds that their wealth and privilege rest on ground as swampy as their prized Back Bay real estate.

Taylor's efforts diverge from the classic plot-driven mystery novel in two ways: Her wealth of historical and art-historical detail and her close attention to the development of Sweeney, a sleuth who's experienced her own share of personal tragedy. In O' Artful Death, the murders forced Sweeney to confront memories of her fiance's violent death. In Mansions, the Putnams, for whom denial is a way of life, make Sweeney grapple with her past as the child of an alcoholic.

It's an ambitious recipe, and the ingredients don't blend as well in Mansions as they did in Taylor's first novel. The story has so many subplots and red herrings that some of them end up seeming extraneous or simply half-baked. Homicide detective Timothy Quinn, for instance, is a figure as moody as Sweeney or Brad. He quotes Keats as he juggles the Putnam case and life at home with a severely depressed wife. But the implied parallel between Quinn's problems and Sweeney's isn't sufficiently explored, and his deference to her deductions is hard to believe.

Even Sweeney sometimes reads more like a sketch than a full-fledged character. Readers of O' Artful Death will be pleased to see development -- if not resolution -- of the quandaries Sweeney brought back from Vermont. Those meeting her for the first time may wish they had a stronger impression of who this woman is and why a dark cloud seems to follow her.

If you like your mysteries to snap shut like steel traps, the resolution of Mansions won't satisfy, either. The denouement is hurried, and the killer's motivation isn't adequately foreshadowed or fleshed out -- a problem in a novel that focuses on the psychological ramifications of death and violence.

Still, anyone who's ever wandered through a graveyard wondering about the secrets its inscriptions conceal will want to come along on Sweeney's peregrinations in Boston and Newport. Finally, the novel seems to suggest, the answer to whodunit is less interesting than the history behind the mystery -- the lies, loves and ironies of the past, which even the Putnams can't succeed in burying with their dead.