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O' Artful Death

O' Artful Death

3.6 9
by Sarah Stewart Taylor, Victoria Kusowski (Designed by)

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Now her tomb lies quiet...

Sweeney St. George looks nothing like a university Professor with her unruly red curls and preference for vintage clothing. Single and wary of relationships, she pours her energy into her college teaching and a passionate interest in cemetery art. And now Sweeney is intrigued with a macabre graveyard statue of a beautiful


Now her tomb lies quiet...

Sweeney St. George looks nothing like a university Professor with her unruly red curls and preference for vintage clothing. Single and wary of relationships, she pours her energy into her college teaching and a passionate interest in cemetery art. And now Sweeney is intrigued with a macabre graveyard statue of a beautiful woman-a carving that is at once astonishing, sinister, and perhaps hiding a one-hundred-year-old murder...

And Death bids me to follow....

Dying to find out more about the strange monument, Sweeney heads for a winter holiday among friends at a mansion in Vermont's historic Byzantium Art Colony. Her plan is to snoop in dusty archives and tromp through the tiny cemetery where the statue still stands. But what Sweeney finds in this isolated rural community is an emotional awakening, a chilling link between old and new crimes...and a clever killer reaching for her with deadly hands.

"A strikingly atmospheric debut. The writing is crisp and the characters all quite forcefully alive, especially Sweeney." -Denver Post

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
… for a first-time novelist, Taylor does a lovely job of setting an atmospheric scene and luring us inside. — Marilyn Stasio
An elegantly wrought first mystery with layers within layers like carved ivory balls. Twenty-eight-year-old Sweeney St. George - her father an artist suicide, her estranged mother an alcoholic -- is an art historian specializing in representations of death. A gorgeous and highly unusual marble grave marker of a young woman in Vermont catches her attention, and she accepts her friend Toby's invitation to spend Christmas at his family's home, in the village of Byzantium, Vermont, near the location of the grave marker and a famed nineteenth century art colony. Even before she arrives for the holidays and the beginning of her research, there's a murder. Petty and gross thievery and another killing intertwine with family secrets and town tensions, as Sweeney methodically patterns her research and slowly reveals the depths of her own sorrows. She's a vivid and attractive sleuth, and the iconography of gravestones and death, hidden meanings in diaries and inscriptions, and some complicated personal relationships sweep one past an overstuffed plot and a slightly wobbly denouement. Rich and rewarding reading.
Publishers Weekly
Freelance journalist Taylor makes a promising, if flawed, debut with an academic cozy set in rural Vermont's Byzantium, a bygone artists colony replete with a Victorian mansion, rumors of murder plots past and present and a surfeit of oddballs marooned there for the winter. Harvard art professor Sweeney St. George, invited to spend Christmas at the colony, soon finds herself immersed in a prolonged quest to find the origin of a distinctive monument in Byzantium's cemetery. Excerpts from a history of the colony help shed light on the fate of Mary Elizabeth Denholm, a farm girl employed as a maid and later as a model by the colony's rapacious founder. Sweeney's almost obsessive curiosity about poor Mary, who drowned at 18 in 1890, and the sculptor of her marble tomb becomes so intense that she (and likewise the reader) admits to being "ready for a break from Mary's gravestone." The story picks up with the unexpected slayings of locals linked to the scandal-ridden Mary, though it remains hampered by too many underdeveloped characters, notably one who proves to be the key to the ultimate resolution of Byzantium's present-day miseries. Taylor, however, does use her expert knowledge of 19th-century artwork and New England to good effect, and one can hope her plots will improve with experience. (June 2) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Art historian Sweeney St. George's interest in an unusual late-Victorian gravestone sculpture takes her to a former art colony in Vermont. Her arrival coincides with the suspicious death of an old local lady who believed that the young woman in the grave Sweeney is seeking was murdered. Sweeney investigates, attempting to find out who carved the beautiful monument and what really happened to the young woman. Her search into local family backgrounds inevitably turns up clues to the old lady's murder as well. A nicely puzzled plot, a closely confined rural setting, remarkable characterizations, and eminently readable prose commend this debut to all collections. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
In this corner is tall, red-haired art historian Sweeney St. George, an expert on Victorian death rituals and representations; in that corner are a burglar, a blackmailer, a murderer or two, and Sweeney’s romantic rival for the attentions of Toby DiMarco, the longstanding chum who invited her to spend the Christmas break with his relatives at Byzantium, a former artists’ colony in Vermont, where she becomes obsessed with discovering who carved Mary Denholm’s atypical 1890 tombstone. Sweeney’s attempts to pinpoint the sculptor are stymied when Ruth Kimball, a descendant of Mary’s who promised her information, is murdered in the cemetery, and old Byzantium artist journals kept in the historical society turn out to have crucial pages missing. Though everyone duly expresses regret that someone has clipped Sweeney’s emerald earrings and a few minor portraits from Byzantium’s most productive period, the colony’s current residents are not exactly devastated by the demise of old Mrs. Kimball, who wanted to sell her property to a condo developer. There’ll be another fatality and more burglaries as Sweeney and Ian, a visiting Englishman, scrutinize Tennyson tombstone verses for clues and Rosemary, whose facial birthmark can’t hide her dangerous beauty, puts the moves on Toby. Taylor’s debut offers pithy assessments of the Pre-Raphaelites, Tennyson, and Victorian mores, along with Christmas-card pretty scenes of winter in Vermont.
From the Publisher
"Taylor does a lovely job of setting an atmospheric scene and luring us inside."

-Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review

"A strikingly atmospheric debut. The writing is crisp and the characters all quite forcefully alive, especially Sweeney." -Denver Post

"[O' Artful Death] rings subtle—and enormously satisfying—changes on the venerable tried-and-true." -Newsday

"An elegantly wrought first mystery with layers within layers like carved ivory balls...Rich and rewarding reading."-Booklist

"A nicely puzzled plot, a closely confined rural setting, remarkable characterizations, and eminently readable prose." -Library Journal

"(Taylor) has an eye for the details of rural New England . . . Pull up an overstuffed chair and drift away." -The Boston Globe

"A compelling mystery about a dark subject. One can hope she'll bring Sweeney for more sleuthing."-Sunday Oklahoman"

"An academic cozy set in rural Vermont's Byzantium, a bygone artists colony replete with a Victorian mansion, rumors of murder plots past and present and a surfeit of oddballs marooned there for the winter."-Publishers Weekly

"Pithy assessments of the Pre-Raphaelites, Tennyson, and Victorian mores, along with Christmas-card pretty scenes of winter in Vermont."-Kirkus Reviews

"I could not put it down . . . Sweeney is a very human and appealing protagonist, and Sarah Stewart Taylor has a lovely, lyrical style. O' Artful Death will be one of the year's best first novels." -Deborah Crombie, author of And Justice There Is None

"Literate and lyrical, O' Artful Death by Sarah Stewart Taylor is a stunning debut novel. Art Historian Sweeney St. George, Taylor's protagonist, is quirky, appealing, and intelligent. O' Artful Death vaults Sarah Stewart Taylor into the select company of Amanda Cross and Jane Langton."-Carolyn Hart, author of Engaged to Die

"Sarah Stewart Taylor's debut mystery is an absolute delight. Sweeney St. George is the most intelligent, erudite, and sympathetic narrator to grace the academic mystery genre since Amanda Cross's Kate Fansler, and Taylor's complicated and multilayered plot is the perfect vehicle for her."-Ayelet Waldman, author of A Playdate with Death

Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
Sweeney St. George Mysteries Series , #2
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
5.78(w) x 8.54(h) x 1.04(d)

Read an Excerpt

O'Artful Death

By Sarah Stewart Taylor

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2003 Sarah Stewart Taylor
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-312-30764-6



The colony at Byzantium was a paean to the beautiful, a monument to the idea that one could live more beautifully in the country.

For the artists, who flocked north come summer for the heady mixture of solitude and like-minded companionship, it was a place where, above everything, aesthetic perfection reigned.

Beauty reigned in the rolling hillsides of the Vermont countryside, it reigned in the silhouette of the staid, silent mountain, it reigned in the graceful, lovely homes and gardens and in everything the artists did. Birth, celebration, even death — all were made beautiful in Byzantium.

Muse of the Hills: The Byzantium Colony, 1860–1956


* * *

THE GIRL'S NUDE BODY lay in the boat, her dead eyes staring heavenward, her long hair coiling strangely to the ground. One graceful arm was thrown across her breasts, covering them carelessly in a gesture more flirtatious than modest; the other arm trailed limply. Unmarred and impossibly smooth, the bloodless surface of her skin looked soft as soap.

Or soft as marble, thought Sweeney St. George as she flipped through the photographs she'd found lying at one end of the seminar table, for that was what the lovely, lifeless woman in the pictures was made of.

It was three weeks before Christmas and outside the windows of the worn and very green fourth floor seminar room, Cambridge was covered in a thin layer of brand new snow. Under the delicate coating, the buildings at this end of the Yard looked to Sweeney like gingerbread houses dusted with powdered sugar. There was something about a snowstorm that purified the city, made it cozier and even more lovely.

After removing her parka and checking the wall clock to confirm that her "Iconography of Death" students wouldn't be arriving for several minutes, Sweeney had dropped the full slide carousel into the projector, placed her notes in front of her and settled her almost six-foot frame into one of the remarkably uncomfortable chairs around the table to look at the pictures.

The color snapshots had been taken in a New England cemetery, complete with slate and granite headstones typical of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and a few marble examples from the late nineteenth and twentieth. The few older Puritan stones stood at attention near the back fence, the more recent dead resting nearer to the front gate, dry autumn leaves piled around their bases. As she always did when she saw photographs of cemeteries she hadn't yet visited, Sweeney found herself wishing for a couple of hours alone with those stones and her gravestone rubbing materials. She loved the magic of making rubbings, the way long-obscured words and images revealed themselves under her hand. This one would contain a few good eighteenth-century examples, she was sure, and there would be some lovely carvings of willow trees and soul's heads. But all in all, it was a thoroughly average graveyard in every way.

In every way, that was, except for the strange, life-sized monument of the young woman. Sweeney flipped through the pile and found the best of them, a head-on shot. She studied it carefully.

The girl was limp in the bottom of the shallow, vaguely fashioned rowboat and behind her, the stern rose like a hangman's hood. Sitting jauntily upon it, and holding a scythe, was the remarkable figure of Death, his bony arms and legs intricately carved from the milky stone.

Sweeney looked again. That was strange. Images of the human face of Death were common on Puritan stones from the mid-1600s and even on stones made in the early nineteenth century, but the style of this stone was much more advanced than any Puritan stone she had ever seen. In fact, it was more like a sculpture, the dead woman's face and breasts as softly and expertly rounded as a Rodin or a Saint-Gaudens. What was the date?

She flipped through the pictures and found one that was a close-up of the tablet at the end of the stone. It was engraved with a few words and some kind of poem.


January 3, 1872 to August 28, 1890

So it was late Victorian. That was puzzling. It was completely atypical for a Victorian stone. By the time this Mary Denholm had died, stonecarvers had moved on to the more familiar euphemistic images for death, such as willow trees, or romanticized cherubs and garlands. But here was this strange reaper, his figure so much more accomplished than those of his brethren on other stones. This Death was a man, with a man's face somehow suggested in the familiar skull. He gazed down at the girl lying beneath him, his eyes soft, a dreamy smile playing at his bony lips. There was something familiar about the way he looked down at his prey, Sweeney realized, something loving.

She did a quick calculation. Eighteen. The girl had been eighteen. What had she died of? Childbirth was a likely cause, but there wasn't a husband's named on the stone, as in "Mary, Beloved Wife of James," so perhaps it had been something else. She searched the marble surface, grainy in the photos. In all her years of studying gravestones and mourning jewelry, shrouds and death masks and funerary art, Sweeney had never seen anything quite as intriguing as this lovely, eroticized sculpture of a dead girl.

The verse below the name and dates on the tablet were inscribed in small, precise letters and Sweeney struggled to make them out. She tipped the surface of the photograph toward the fluorescent overhead light and there they were, as bizarre as the work on which they'd been etched.

Death resides in my garden, with his hands wrapped 'round my throat
He beckons me to follow and I step lightly in his boat.
All around us summer withers, blossoms drop and rot,
And Death bids me to follow, his arrow in my heart.

There was more, but Sweeney looked up from the photograph then, for something about the dead girl, the strange poem and the smiling figure of Death had made her think of the early New England gravestones that described Indian raids or grisly murders. She wondered how this girl had died.

Voices sounded in the hall. She tucked the photographs into her bookbag and stood up to welcome her class.

"Hey, Sweeney," said Brendan Freeman, one of her senior advisees. "How's it going?"

Still two years away from her thirtieth birthday, Sweeney knew she wasn't the model of a professorial authority figure. Her class outfits tended toward jeans or whatever she'd found that week at her favorite Cambridge vintage clothes shop, and her bright red curls, which fell halfway down her back, were often unruly, hastily pinned up with a pencil or a binder clip. But she hadn't gotten to be twenty-eight without beginning to understand how she affected people, and she knew that there was something about her open, lightly freckled face, with its large green eyes and delicate nose, its almost-but-not-quite-beautiful expression of passionate expectancy, that put her students at ease, but that also made them want to work. Her department chairman had once told her he thought she was too familiar with her students, but insisting on "Professor St. George" seemed a hollow gesture.

"Hi, Brendan. Hi, everybody. How are you all holding up?"

It was the last class before the winter vacation and they filed in lethargically, lugging backpacks and textbooks. The shabby carpet and sickly green walls of the seminar room reflected their moods. When they were seated, she could see she'd lost about half of them to early flights home or late nights in the library for other classes.

She took a deep breath. She just had to get through this lecture and one more and she'd be done until January. "All right, let's get going. Today's lecture is entitled 'The Triumph of Death.' Ring any bells? Come on, let's see what you remember from the reading." A few tentative hands waved back at her.

The strange gravestone would have to wait.

SWEENEY WAS ALMOST through with the class when Toby DiMarco slipped in and sat down in a chair at the back of the darkened room, grinning at her and then bowing his head of dark, Italian Renaissance curls to the table in mock concentration. Toby, who was not in the class, was Sweeney's best friend and liked to come and watch her teach. They'd met their freshman year at college and, with the exception of the three years Sweeney had been in England at Oxford, had both stayed in Boston. Since returning to America almost a year ago, Sweeney had been appointed an assistant professor in the History of Art and Architecture Department and published a book on Victorian death rituals and representations called The Art of the Grave: Death and the Victorian World. The book had enjoyed some modest success: an NPR interview and a quirky and complimentary review in The New York Times Book Review. Its success had gotten Sweeney her job and made her the most disliked member of the department. Her colleagues found her area of specialty overly broad and decidedly lowbrow, and they were envious of her mainstream success. She knew her chances of getting tenure were almost nil, but she loved her students.

Toby, for his part, had made a career of graduate school. He was forever trying to finish his novel — a Generation X roman à clef long ago called promising by a beloved writing professor — as well as his seemingly interminable Ph.D. thesis on an obscure American poet named James Milliner, and would turn from one to the other at sixmonth intervals, announcing each time to his exhausted friends that he had finally decided to commit to whichever project it was. The problem, which Sweeney was always trying to identify for him without hurting his feelings, was that he didn't know whether he wanted to be a writer or an academic. So he continued on being neither exactly.

"If you look here, you'll see what I mean about the skeleton," she told the class, pointing to the head of a jaunty-looking Death who leaned against an urn on a gravestone up on the slide screen. "Anyone want to guess when this is? Brendan, would you like to give it a stab? No pun intended."

That got a laugh from the class.

"I'd guess eighteenth century," Brendan said. "1760s?"

"Close." Sweeney grinned at him gratefully. "1750s. A cemetery near Concord. Remember the skeleton and now, look at this one." She pressed the "ahead" button on the projector controls.

Up came a medieval fresco, a resurrection scene with a skeleton lurking in the background.

"Skeletons have been used as memento mori symbols in art as far back as the Greeks and Romans, who displayed them at feasts as a reminder that they were mortal and ought to enjoy life while they could. Skeletons were reproduced on drinking cups and in floor mosaics, things people saw and used every day.

"Skeletons and skulls and crossbones were common until the end of the eighteenth century," she went on, "when they were replaced by the more euphemistic images — cherubs, soul's heads and the like. These images came to stand in for the more macabre ones. If you think for a moment about someone walking through a cemetery, looking at the stones, you can see what the difference would have been between say an eighteenth-century one and a Victorian example."

Unless, she realized, you were talking about the stone she'd just seen in those photographs.

Sweeney glanced up at the clock. It was eleven.

"Well, that's it. We'll finish up in January. Thank you, everybody. Have a great holiday and safe trip to wherever you're going. I'll see you in a month or so. Remember to keep reading in Genetti and start thinking about your final paper topics."

"Hey, prof," Toby said when everyone had filed out of the room. "Good class." He looked the way she pictured him when she hadn't seen him for a while, skinny as one of her skeletons, his cherubically curly black hair too long and completely unarranged. She felt a surge of affection as he shrugged out of his black leather jacket and moved his wire-rimmed glasses aside to rub the bridge of his nose. With his pale skin and dark Italian eyes, he'd always reminded her of a goofier, geekier version of the nubile gods in rococo paintings.


"By the way, which poor member of the Smith class of 1945 gave up her clothes for the cause?" He cast a disapproving look at her outfit.

"What?" She looked down at her pleated skirt and belted jacket. "Don't you think it's cool? I think it's a Balenciaga knockoff."

Toby didn't say anything. He tended to date girls who wore fashions that could be found in current fashion magazines.

"And what's that around your neck?"

"Oh, look." She showed him the small gold and black coffin, inhabited by a skeleton and hanging on a chain around her neck. It was a museum reproduction of an Elizabethan pendant and a recent purchase.

"You're weird."

"Thanks a lot. To what do I owe the honor?" She pointed to a chair and they sat down.

"What are you doing for Christmas again? Something fun like spending it completely alone with a bottle of scotch and some thirty-two-hour BBC costume drama?"

"Shut up." She kicked his chair. "I like having Christmas by myself. And besides, I'm on an old Italian movie kick right now." She said it lightly, but his words had bitten a little.

"Well, if you can drag yourself away from Marcello Mastroianni long enough to come to Vermont with me, I've got a proposition for you."

She raised her eyebrows. "What kind of proposition?"

"A gravestone. To be precise, the gravestone in the photographs that were here when you came into the room." Leave it to Toby, with his flair for the dramatic, to leave the unlabeled photos, knowing they would spark her interest.

"You? I couldn't figure out where they came from." She retrieved the prints from her bookbag and spread them out on the table.

"So what do you think?"

"I'm intrigued." She found the close-up of the tablet and read the bizarre epitaph in its entirety this time.

Death resides in my garden, with his hands wrapped 'round my throat
He beckons me to follow and I step lightly in his boat.
All around us summer withers, blossoms drop and rot,
And Death bids me to follow, his arrow in my heart.
We sail away on his ocean, and the garden falls away
where life and death are neighbors, and night never turns to day.
A wind comes up on the water, Death's sails are full and proud
My love I will go with thee, dressed in a funeral shroud.
Now her tomb lies quiet, the shroud is turned to stone
And where Death had been standing, is only the grave of her bones.


"I know, the poem's not very good," Toby said. "But I think you'll be interested anyway."

"All right. Tell me more."

"You knew I went to Vermont for Thanksgiving, right? To stay with Patch and Britta?"

Sweeney nodded. Patch and Britta Wentworth were Toby's aunt and uncle on what Sweeney liked to call the "grand branch" of his family. They lived with their children in the former arts colony in Byzantium, Vermont, in a house called Birch Lane that had been built by Toby's great-grandfather. The great-grandfather was Herrick Gilmartin, a famous landscape and portrait painter from the 1880s on. Gilmartin, the sculptor Bryn Davies Morgan and a host of other well-known American artists had summered or lived off-and-on in the colony at Byzantium for most of their working lives. Sweeney didn't know much about the colony, but she'd once heard a colleague say that for a time, Byzantium and a handful of other New England artists' communities had contained the greatest concentration of artistic talent in the United States.

"Well, while I was up there, I was looking around in the little cemetery near Patch and Britta's and remembered that there's always been some question about that stone. It's pretty strange for the time period, right?"

Sweeney nodded. "Really strange. The girl would be a very typical Victorian monument, if she were standing and draped over a grave or something, but the figure of Death is incredibly weird, very un-Victorian actually. And it's clearly by a real artist, a sculptor. Any idea who it was?"

"I don't think anybody knows. The assumption is that it was by someone who was a member of the colony or someone who visited, but it isn't signed."

"Who was the girl? Mary Denholm."

"Just a local girl. The family lived down below my great- grandparents' house and one of the Denholm descendants still lives in the house. Ruth Kimball. I've known her all my life."

Sweeney studied the photographs while he talked.

"So what's the proposition?"

"Come up to Vermont with me for Christmas. I already asked Patch and Britta and they said they'd love to have you. You can look into this stone a little, maybe get a chapter for your book about an anomalous, heretofore-unidentified masterpiece, have some fun for a change. Christmas is great up there, lots of skiing and wassailing. Whatever wassailing is. And they have this giant party every year, a couple of days before the twenty-fifth. You'll love it."

There was a note of desperation in his voice that made her ask, a little slyly, "Why do you want to go back up to Vermont again so soon after Thanksgiving? You could go spend Christmas with your mom in California."


Excerpted from O'Artful Death by Sarah Stewart Taylor. Copyright © 2003 Sarah Stewart Taylor. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Sarah Stewart Taylor, an avid gravestone buff, is a freelance journalist in Vermont. Her great-grandmother belonged to a New Hampshire arts colony. This is her first novel.

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O' Artful Death 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
GenieQueen More than 1 year ago
As a genealogist I spend a lot of time in cemeteries. As a reader I love a great mystery. This book combined both in an entertaining tale of murder and a mysterious tombstone. Sweeney was a great heroine, the story kept me guessing til the end. I can't wait to read the rest of the books in this series!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Guest More than 1 year ago
It is nice to read a story where the author has done her homework. Sarah Stewart Taylor has done an in-depth investigation of funeral art. The main character, Sweeney, is intelligent and believable. I'm not a huge fan of mystery novels, but this is an intricate story of history, love, art (and artist colonies), and Vermont. This a quick and fun read that requires the reader to have a brain.
harstan More than 1 year ago
Boston based Professor Sweeney St. George is considered an expert on Victorian burial practices and rituals, especially the art representations including gravestones. Her friend Toby DiMarco persuades Sweeney to spend her Christmas vacation with his relatives at Byzantium, Vermont, a town that once hosted a former artists¿ colony

Sweeney immediately accepts the invitation. She wants to know about the unknown artist who carved a highly artistic but strange looking tombstone commemorating the death of Mary Elizabeth Denholm by drowning in 1890. Sweeney¿s efforts to identify the stone¿s sculptor seem about to be rewarded when a descendent of the deceased Ruth Kimball offers to provide information. However, before Ruth can deliver, someone kills her, but no one seems too excited over the homicide. Sweeney, assisted by another visitor, turns to Tennyson in a quest for a clue to a killer who will murder again to keep some things secret

Sarah Stewart Taylor¿s debut novel is entertainingly refreshing because the who-done-it plays a secondary role to the in depth look at the art of death. Cleverly intertwined into the investigative plot is an intriguing analysis of Tennyson, as well as other artists especially from the Victorian period. Fans will appreciate this cleverly crafted fine arts mystery.

Harriet Klausner

Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A really terrible book, with an extremely annoying protagonist.