Sarah Stewart Taylor: O’ Artful Death & Mansions of the Dead

O’ Artful Death was one of the “buzz” books of the year last year – while not causing as big a sensation as Maisie Dobbs or Monkeewrench (both notable first novels), after reading all of them, I almost think Taylor’s novel is the most polished and satisfying of the three. It’s also very much a first book in terms of its verve and energy, and if, like a beautiful but newborn colt, it sometimes lumbers off into uncharted territory, it’s always charming and compelling. This is a novel for fans of Deborah Crombie and Joanne Dobson – Crombie’s graceful prose and darker themes are present here, as is Dobson’s effective use of a university setting.

Unusually, Stewart Taylor’s heroine, Sweeney St. George, makes a career as an art historian focusing on gravestones. This is such a perfect occupation for a mystery series heroine, I’m surprised no-one’s thought of it before; however, like all novelists who bring real life interests to their work (Stewart Taylor is a graveyard afficionado herself), this focus brings more interest and depth to the story she’s telling. In the first novel, O’ Artful Death, Sweeney’s friend Toby guides her to a highly unusual gravestone: a woman’s body lying in a rowboat being piloted by death. The gravestone, as it happens, is in the graveyard of the artists’ colony where his aunt and uncle live. He invites Sweeney along for Christmas, and the fun begins. When Sweeney makes a pre-visit phone call to the dead woman’s relative to see if she can learn more about her – and this same woman ends up dead – the scene is set for an ominous and tension filled Christmas.

Stewart Taylor, who is apparently quite young, has the natural novelists’ gift of setting a scene and creating memorable characters. The fictional “Byzantium Colony” where she sets her book is a loose collection of artists and writers who live in a sort of isolation on an almost “island” on the east coast. In existence since the 1880’s or so, when the gravestone Sweeney is interested in was made, the same families are still living on the island, with all the shared knowledge, tolerance and lack of tolerance that a small community guarantees. Toby’s aunt and uncle, Patch and Britta, and their three eccentric teenage children are worried about not only the death of the woman Sweeney had contacted by telephone, but also perplexed by a series of burglaries around the colony. Sweeney herself, while galvanized with interest about the grave of the mysterious long ago dead woman, is tormented by her friend Toby’s burgeoning romantic relationship with one of the islanders, and mystified by a fellow visitor, a British antiques picker named Ian. None of this is as precious as it sounds as the psychological underpinning to all the characters is sound, and the characters are fully fleshed out. Stewart Taylor even supplies both a nifty red herring and a locked room conundrum; and perhaps niftiest of all, she solves the puzzle using her academic skills, a strength she shares with Joanne Dobson’s heroine (who used an actual copy of Jane Eyre to good effect in her first novel).

By the second book, Mansions of the Dead, Sweeney is still dealing with the after effects of her Vermont artist colony experience, and is plunged into a new mystery when one of her favorite students is found as an apparent suicide. To further pique Sweeney’s interest, his body has been festooned with Victorian mourning jewelry, a topic he and Sweeney had been discussing in her seminar. (This jewelry, made of hair, is so interesting I had to go google some images of it. Look it up under “Hair Work Jewelry” yourself – you’ll be amazed). The death of her student takes her to Newport where it becomes obvious that while her family ties her to Newport she’s not quite “of” society – she comes from bohemian, if moneyed, stock. She’s thus set up for the archetypal outsider point of view so important for any investigator. Her family background also begins to emerge – an alcoholic and dead father, a semi-crazy actress mother – and when Sweeney visits her aunt’s Newport home, the aunt definitely seems like the most stable family member. Sweeney’s family history is quite tantalizing, and while some of it is delved into in this book, there’s obviously more to the story.

Stewart Taylor also adds a cop in this book, and she gives the cop such a good backstory he becomes almost as compelling a character as Sweeney. There’s definitely more to be told about him as well as about Sweeney. There’s a good story here, and Sweeney again uses her academic smarts to not only help her solve the crime but to get herself believably involved in the murder investigation – the police need her specialized knowledge (who among us, after all, knows much, if anything, about Victorian mourning jewelry?). These books are fresh, interesting, and beautifully written, and I couldn’t recommend them more highly.