The word "atmospheric" keeps turning up to describe Vermont author Sarah Stewart Taylor's debut mystery novel. It appears in the book jacket copy as well as in a recent, mostly glowing review in The New York Times. The adjective bears repeating because the language in O' Artful Death is gently, consistently evocative of place and mood. Taylor has managed the literary equivalent of a close embrace, and only in its deconstruction do the techniques of her storytelling seduction become clear.
It helps that the season is winter; Taylor puts both its cold beauty and its life-threatening qualities to good use. It also helps that the setting is an exclusive, isolated artist's colony in tiny Byzantium, Vermont -- or as the locals call it, "Bisantum." Established in the Victorian era, the once-scandalous, decadent community of resident and visiting painters and sculptors is now simply a scattering of homes for the well-heeled and close-knit descendants of famous artists. Their financial and aesthetic backgrounds separate them from the villagers, as does the colony's geographical location on an "island" of land cut off by a river. The bridge between the two is both physical and metaphorical. A conflict with a local woman who turns up murdered becomes more than a plot twist involving Act 250 and unwelcome development.
Though written in third person, O' Artful Death primarily unfolds through the eyes of Taylor's compelling and thoroughly original protagonist, Sweeney St. George. The assistant college professor (at Harvard, we're led to assume) is a statuesque redhead, just pretty enough to attract male attention but quirky and insecure enough to be sympathetic. And, of course, she's smart enough to solve mysteries. But it is her unusual occupation that grounds the story in the first place and makes Taylor's cerebral tone ring true.
The author is in real life an "avid gravestone buff" and she has transferred this interest to her heroine, an art historian who specializes in death. The artifacts of death, that is -- in particular the artwork and epitaphs on gravestones. Intellectual and workaholic, Sweeney is the daughter of a semi-important artist who committed suicide when she was 13, and an itinerant English actress who gave her only child a nomadic and lonely life.
Sweeney has turned this psychological baggage into a functional, if somewhat macabre, academic obsession. But it's one that earns the disdain of her art-history peers as "decidedly lowbrow" and keeps Sweeney a loner in her department. Or are they just jealous of the modest mainstream success garnered by her book on Victorian death rituals and representations?
The novel begins as Sweeney's best friend -- and prospective love interest -- Tobey DiMarco invites her to spend the holidays with him at Byzantium, where his aunt, uncle and cousins comprise one of the few remaining families. To lure his somewhat anti-social friend, Tobey shows her photographs of a spectacular gravestone -- a marble sculpture featuring a hauntingly lovely young woman on a small boat with skeletal, scythe-wielding Death -- at the Byzantium cemetery.
Naturally, Sweeney can't resist the temptation to investigate this art-history enigma: The 1890 sculpture is anomalous for the period, and the artist, though clearly immensely talented, is unknown. The mystery deepens when Sweeney learns that Mary Denholm, who is memorialized in the sculpture, had allegedly drowned under suspicious circumstances. Some townspeople remain convinced the beautiful artist's model had been murdered at the colony -- possibly by the sculptor. And the plot instantly thickens when Sweeney discovers that the recently killed woman is a descendant of Mary's. Is there a connection between Ruth Kimball's death -- from a bullet to the head -- and Sweeney's phone interview with her about Mary's gravestone just a day earlier? Does someone at the colony want to prevent her from discovering the identity of the artist?
Almost nothing in Byzantium is quite what it seems, including the attentions of a handsome British visitor, also a guest for the holidays, whom Sweeney finds strangely unsettling. And she's irritated to find herself jealous of Tobey's attraction to Rosemary, who is the granddaughter of a colony artist. Or is she? Even more distracting, and distressing, is another murder and a string of bizarre robberies on the island.
By the end of O' Artful Death, Sweeney has solved not only a century-old conundrum but also uncovered the colony's present-day criminals. Along the way Taylor treats us to liberal doses of art history -- factual and fictional -- engaging characters and creatively measured prose. A few quibbles: She is not immune to the occasional cliche dramatization, a couple threads are left dangling, and, even though the suggestion of danger lurks throughout, Tay-lor's literary embrace never quite becomes a grip.
That said, it is a testament to this first-time novelist's skill that she can slow action to a standstill in order to lovingly observe, say, the look and sound of a river, and still keep us turning pages well into the night. O' Artful Death is truly an artful mystery, and Sweeny is a savvy sleuth this reader hopes to follow around again.
Sarah Stewart Taylor will read from her book at the Strafford Town House on Wednesday, August 13, 7 p.m., along with Vermont's veteran detective writer Archer Mayor.