The Unravelling of Violeta Bell: A Morgue Mama Mystery


Newspaper librarian Maddy Sprowls never gives story ideas to the editors at The Hannawa Herald-Union. She prefers to stay in the morgue and do her job, and hopes the editors stay in the newsroom and do theirs. Then one Saturday she sees four elderly women get out of a taxicab at a garage sale. Those women must hire that cabby every week, she figures, to drive them from garage sale to garage sale while they search for treasure. And wouldnt that make a great feature story for the paper? Monday morning she runs ...

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Newspaper librarian Maddy Sprowls never gives story ideas to the editors at The Hannawa Herald-Union. She prefers to stay in the morgue and do her job, and hopes the editors stay in the newsroom and do theirs. Then one Saturday she sees four elderly women get out of a taxicab at a garage sale. Those women must hire that cabby every week, she figures, to drive them from garage sale to garage sale while they search for treasure. And wouldnt that make a great feature story for the paper? Monday morning she runs straight to the newsroom with her idea. Shortly after the story runs, one of the four women is murdered-retired antique dealer Violeta Bell. Maddy wants no part of the investigation. But before she knows it shes on another of her infamous snoopathons. And, good gravy, enjoying every minute of it.Was Violeta Bell murdered by one of the other garage sale ladies? Former striptease artist Kay Hausenfelter perhaps? Or real estate agent Gloria McPhee? Or eccentric philanthropist Ariel Wilburger-Gowdy? Or was it Eddie French, the scruffy cabby with a police record as long as his arm? And what about Violetas claim that she was the rightful queen of Romania? Any truth to that? Readers who loved C.R. Corwins first two Morgue Mama mysteries—The Cross Kisses Back and Digwill be happy to see that Maddy is as crafty and cantankerous as ever. If not more so!

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

In Corwin's charming third Morgue Mama mystery (after 2005's Dig), Maddy Sprowls, an Ohio newspaper librarian in her late 60s, pitches an idea for a human interest story about a quartet of garage sale queens, one of whom claims to be a real royal. Young reporter Gabriella Nash, to whom Maddy plays reluctant mentor, gets the assignment. When Violeta Bell, self-proclaimed Romanian monarch, turns up dead after her 15 minutes of fame in the Hannewa Herald-Union, Maddy turns detective, dragging along Gabriella. Maddy's newly acquired googling skills lead her to Canada to meet another claimant to the Romanian throne, yielding only further conundrums. Meanwhile, Maddy grapples with her still fresh "autumn" love affair with Ike Breeze, her opposite in many ways, as well as a bothersome (to Ike) sleep disorder that may need medical attention. Irascible, fearless and unapologetic, Maddy is a heroine cozy fans will embrace. (Apr.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
School Library Journal

In her latest adventure (after Dig), Maddy Sprowls-feisty, bright, zany, middle-aged head librarian for the Hannawa Herald-Union(a knockoff of Ohio's Akron Beacon Journal; author Corwin is a former newspaper reporter living there)-comes through once again. Her nose for detail spurs the newspaper's interest in four elderly ladies who hit the garage-sale circuit every week. When one of those women, retired antiques dealer Violeta Bell, is murdered, Maddy gets the investigation moving in the right direction. Frothing with humor, Corwin's narrative exhibits his sharp ability to depict human relationships. For readers with a taste for Janet Evanovich-like witty dialog and laugh-aloud situations.

—Jo Ann Vicarel Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Kirkus Reviews
Maddy Sprowls solves the murder of the Queen of Romania. Violeta Bell grandly insisted she was Romania's rightful monarch, even though the scrappy septuagenarian had been living for years in a retirement home in the States, spending Saturdays with three other old-timers hunting for yard-sale treasures under the watchful eye of weekend driver Eddie French. When Violeta is found in her undies shot through the heart in the fitness room, cub reporter Gabriella Nash tearfully wonders if her feature story on the group led to the murder. So many of Violeta's antiques are found in Eddie's house that he gets indicted, but when her boss's wife challenges Maddy to prove the innocence of her dear sorority sister's brother, Maddy agrees. The trail takes her to Canada's Wolfe Island and the real pretender to the Romanian throne, then back to the corridors of the retirement home, where Violeta may have been romancing another old fogy who was three-timing his wife, and finally to Eddie's digs, where Maddy unravels a fake antiques scheme. A whopping sexual secret will be disclosed before all is resolved, and Maddy can return to sorting and storing newspaper stories again. The humor is a bit more forced than in Maddy's earlier adventures (Dig, 2005, etc.), but Corwin's plotting has improved. And newspaper junkies will still enjoy the city-room squabbling.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781590585023
  • Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press
  • Publication date: 4/28/2008
  • Series: Morgue Mama Series
  • Edition description: Large Print Edition
  • Pages: 346
  • Sales rank: 1,074,867
  • Product dimensions: 5.94 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.76 (d)

Meet the Author

C.R. Corwin is a former newspaper reporter living in Akron, Ohio. He teaches a Writing That Novel workshop through the University of Akron.

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Read an Excerpt

The Unraveling of Violeta Bell

A Morgue Mama Mystery
By C. R. Corwin

Poisoned Pen Press

Copyright © 2008 C. R. Corwin
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59058-501-6

Chapter One

Monday, June 19

I learned long ago not to give my story ideas to the editors. They grin at you like a constipated duck. They quack, "Ooooh, what a great idea!" Then they never assign anyone to write it. And if by some miracle they do, the reporter gets the story wrong. So I stay in the morgue and do my job, and hope the editors stay in the newsroom and try like the dickens to do theirs.

But there I was, scooting toward Nancy Peale's desk just as fast as my full mug of Darjeeling tea would let me go. But, good gravy, I couldn't help myself. The idea was just too good.

Nancy has been the features editor since the Jurassic Age, which means she's been at The Hannawa Herald-Union almost as long as me. So we've had our share of run-ins. "Sorry to bother you, Nancy," I said with as much cheeriness as I could muster on a Monday morning, "but I just had to pass along something I saw."

She looked up from her pecan roll. Gave me that duck look. "You know we're always looking for good stories, Maddy."

I bolstered myself with a long sip of tea and began. "Well—I was on my way to get some Milkbones for James, and a few groceries, and you know what Saturdays in June are like. More garage sales than dandelions. Anyway, I was on Pershing, just a couple blocks south of West Apple, and a taxi had pulled up in front of this house with a garage sale sign and a driveway full of junk. And these four old women were getting out, dressed in the most God-awful outfits, like circus clowns on their way to church." I took another sip, peeking over the top of my mug to make sure Nancy was still listening. "Anyway, it occurred to me that maybe they hired a cab every Saturday to drag them from one garage sale to another. And wouldn't that make a great story if they did."

Nancy's mouth was now full of pecan goo. "And do they?"

I was ready for her. "Every Saturday all summer. For the past four or five years. Garage sales and estate sales. I called the cab company. They always use the same driver, too."

Nancy gave me a rare smile. "The stories he could, tell, huh?"

"His name is Eddie French."

She scribbled it on her desk pad. "City Cab or Yellow?"


"Well—it sounds like a great idea, Maddy. Thanks."

I went back to my desk figuring that would be the end of it. I got busy marking up the Saturday and Sunday papers.

That's my job. I've been the head librarian of The Herald Union for the past thirty-four years. In the newspaper business we call the library the morgue. It's where we keep stories that have already run—the dead stories if you will—in case reporters need them for background on the new ones they're writing. In the old days, I'd clip the stories with my big, black-handled scissors, scribble a date on them, and cram them into those wonderful old battleship gray filing cabinets that used to grace the morgue. Now I go through the paper with a felt-tip pen deciding which electronic files to store them in. This new system cost the paper a bazillion dollars and took years to implement. And of course the stories are no easier to find in cyberspace than they were in those old A-Z filing cabinets. But you can't stop progress.

I do try, of course.

For one thing, I refuse to use my computer for anything more complicated than reading my email or ordering clothes from Chadwick's or Lands' End. I leave all the real computer work to my assistant, Eric Chen. Keyboard-wise he's a genius. Life-wise he's a Class A doofus.

Another thing I refuse to do is retire. I know I'm a royal pain in the ass around here, but there's no way in hell the morgue could function without me. And there's no way I could function without the morgue. So I stay on, one birthday cake shy of seventy, making everyone's life just as miserable as I can.

Anyway, I finished marking up the weekend papers and then walked down to Ike's Coffee Shop for lunch. I spent my usual two hours there, at my little table by the window, stuffing myself with tuna salad and potato chips, yakking with Ike about this and that. On my way back to the paper I stopped at the bank and renewed a couple of CDs, locking in that astronomical 2.3% interest rate for another eighteen months. I also picked up my Lipitor prescription at Walgreen's. By the time I got back to the morgue it was three o'clock. I made my afternoon tea and settled in at my desk to mark up the Monday edition. Before I could get the cap off my felt-tip, I saw Nancy Peale heading my way. Behind her was some snippet of a girl I didn't recognize.

"In the middle of something?" Nancy asked.

She'd been civil with me that morning, so I had no choice but to be civil with her. "Not yet."

"Good—I wanted you to meet Gabriella Nash. She just started today. I gave her that idea of yours."

I hadn't recognized her face—how could I without that awful spiked green hair she used to have—but her name sure rang a bell. Before I could force my frown into something that resembled a smile, she stuck out her hand. "Remember me, Mrs. Sprowls?"

I reached across my clutter and shook her soft, sweaty paw. "Of course I do, dear. Welcome to The Herald-Union."

Nancy seemed genuinely surprised that I knew her new reporter. "I thought maybe you could help Gabriella get started with her story."

"Of course I could." Nancy wiggled her fingers good-bye and hurried back to the newsroom. Gabriella and I were left smiling at each other like a couple of brainless Raggedy Ann dolls.

Gabriella Nash was actually a very pretty girl without that green mess on her head. Her hair was straight now. Sensibly brunette. Her nose rings were gone, too. Instead of the ratty jeans and bare-midriff I remembered, she was wearing trim-fitting khakis and a striped blouse with white cuffs and collar, an outfit that even I'd wear if my dumpy, post-menopausal torso would permit it. For the record, I was wearing my usual baggy chinos, my Tweetie Bird T-shirt, white anklets and a pair of canvas earth shoes I've had since earth shoes were in fashion.

I guess we talked for a good twenty minutes. I told her everything I could remember about those four crazy women I saw crawl out of the cab. About the cabbie, Eddie French. I was just as helpful as I could be. After she thanked me and went back to her squeaky clean desk in the newsroom, I made a beeline for Alec Tinker's office.

Tinker has been the managing editor for two years now. He came to us from our sister paper in Baton Rouge with the impossible task of boosting The Herald-Union's sagging circulation. He's only thirty-four. One of those alpha-male types who shaves his head to cover up his bald spot. Anyway, I stormed right into his office, making sure the glass in the door rattled when I closed it behind me. I hissed at him like a forty-foot python. "What in the hell were you thinking?"

Tinker answered me without looking up from the avalanche on his desk. He had one stack of computer printouts in his left hand, another in his right, and a third clenched in his teeth. "About going into the newspaper business? Good question!"

This was the most frantic half-hour of Tinker's day—when he prepared for his afternoon budget meeting with the other editors to decide what was going in the next morning's paper and where. It was the perfect time for me to torture him. "Your decision to major in journalism is a good topic," I said, "but I was referring in particular about your hiring Gabriella Nash."

Tinker took the printouts out of his mouth. "She's a good hire."

"As good as Aubrey was?"

Tinker pushed himself as far away from me as the casters on his big, black managing editor's chair would take him. His decision to bring in Aubrey as police reporter nearly cost him his job. "Now come on, Maddy. Gabriella Nash is hardly another Aubrey McGinty."

I came around his desk. Propped my rear on the edge so his carefully stacked printouts slid into each other. I poured on the salt and pepper. "I'm not saying she is. I'm just saying your objectivity occasionally wanes."

"Are you accusing me of sexist hiring practices?"

"Of course not—you've hired plenty of ugly men."

Tinker enjoyed our verbal duels. But he had that budget meeting to get to. So he got right to the point. Or at least tried to. "I know you had a little problem with Miss Nash in the past—"

"Little problem? All that stuff she wrote about me? Without once calling to confirm it?"

Tinker conceded the point with a bobble of his shiny head. "But everything she wrote about you was true. It showed she's got a nose for news."

He was right enough about that. That day I went to see Gabriella at Hemphill College, quietly snooping into Professor Gordon Sweet's murder, she'd quickly put two and two together and came up with a very big scoop for the college paper. And she was only a junior then. God only knows how good she might be now. "But she didn't color inside the lines, Alec. Rule One of journalism is to let the subject of a story confirm or deny what you've got."

Tinker shooed me off his desk, scooted forward in his chair and gathered up his papers. "And if she had, Maddy? Would you have confirmed or denied?"

"No comment."

Tinker walked me to the door. "I had the same concerns you had. I talked to her about it. She was genuinely anguished."

I reached for the doorknob. "Was she now?"

He grabbed the knob before I could. "A lot more than a certain librarian when she was caught investigating another murder on company time."

"I did not investigate Gordon Sweet's murder on company time."

I headed for the morgue. Tinker headed toward his meeting. Both of us were laughing.

* * *

My old Dodge Shadow likes June better than any month. It's neither too cold nor too hot for its delicate insides. I made it all the way home to my shoebox on Brambriar Court without a single warning light on the dash flashing at me. Which was a small but welcome victory given my foul mood.

Good gravy! Gabriella Nash? Of all the hungry kids with journalism degrees out there? If I didn't know Tinker better, I'd think he hired her just to get my goat. But he's a serious newspaperman. He wants The Herald-Union to have the best reporters possible. He wants the people of Hannawa, Ohio, to have the best coverage possible. So if Gabriella Nash hadn't had good grades, a good portfolio of clips from the college paper, and high praise from her professors, he wouldn't have hired her, no matter how much he wanted to punish me.

And I did deserve to be punished. I'd not only promised Detective Grant that I wouldn't interfere in his investigation of Gordon Sweet's murder, I'd refused to give the paper what I dug up.

So I was prepared to coexist with Gabriella Nash. As long as she had the good sense to tread lightly.

James was waiting for me in the kitchen. So were a puddle of spilled water, a chewed up potholder, and a big glob of poop. "Looks like your day was more fun than mine," I said, scratching his floppy ears.

James, I should explain, was not my husband. That worthless beast was long gone. James was my neighbor's American water spaniel. An enormous ball of brown knots. A drooling pink tongue the size of an Easter ham. Eyes that could melt the icecaps on Mars.

My neighbor, Jocelyn Coopersmith, left James with me when she went to California to take care of her daughter, who'd fallen apart after her husband was swept into the Pacific Ocean while collecting mussels for a paella. Jocelyn said she'd be out there for five months. That was fifteen months ago.

So after all those years of living alone, I had a dog.

And a man, too, believe it or not.

I cleaned up James' mess. And before I could stop myself I called that man. "Hi—you have your supper yet?"

"Good Lord, Maddy. It's only Monday."

"A bad Monday."

"I'll pick up a pizza."

"Thanks, Ike."

That's right. The new man in my life is a man who's been in my life for a good fifteen years. For a long time Ike Breeze and I were nothing more than coffee shop owner and cantankerous customer. Lunch hour by lunch hour we became buddies. Now all of a sudden we were, well, we were something a whole lot more complicated.

At my age, any man would be a complication. I'd been without one for decades. But Ike and I both came with a few high hurdles for the other to leap. Above and beyond the usual not-putting-the-cap-back-on-the-toothpaste crap. Ike, for example, was a man. And I, thank God, I was a woman. Ike was black. I was white. Ike, for some reason, was a Republican. I, like anybody with a thread of common sense, was a Democrat. Ike went to church. I went past them as fast as I could. Ike was a widower who'd loved his wife to pieces. I was a divorcee who had long ago picked up the pieces. Ike was even-tempered, understanding, excruciatingly tolerant of others, simply a beautiful human being to be around. I was, well, I tended to have trouble in those areas.

Chapter Two

Sunday, June 25

"Oatmeal, Maddy? On Sunday? What ever happened to bacon and eggs?"

I tilted back my head and looked straight up at Ike's unshaven frown. "My raging cholesterol."

He yawned his way to the Mr. Coffee on the counter. Joined me at the table. "So let me get this straight, Mrs. Sprowls—you've got high cholesterol and I've got to eat oats like a damn horse."

I went to the stove to get him some. "Can't sacrifice a little for a beautiful woman?"

He yawned again. This time like a hippopotamus. "I'm sacrificing plenty."

I knew what he was getting at. It was the one sore spot in our relationship. I spooned more oatmeal into his bowl just for spite. Banged the bowl down in front of him like a surly waitress. "I wait twenty-five years to get another man in my bed and he can't handle a little snoring?"

Ike scraped half of his oatmeal into my bowl. "It's not just the snoring. It's all that thrashing about you do. Kicking out the covers so my feet get cold."

"I like a man with cold feet."

Ike is a serious man. A retired high school math teacher who thinks the best way to spend his retirement is to work sixty hours a week running a coffee shop. "A sleep disorder is nothing to joke about, Maddy."

I sprinkled brown sugar over his oatmeal, a not-so-subtle hint he should shut up and eat. Our medical writer, Tabitha Geist, had done a four-part series on sleep disorders. Sleep centers were popping up like mushrooms. Significant others all over the country were begging their bed partners to get tested. But as far as I was concerned, sleep apnea was just the latest disease-of-the-week. Remember that scourge of the 1970s, hypoglycemia? When everybody was rushing to the doctor to get their blood sugar tested? Still, I could see that Ike was worried about me. And that wasn't such a bad thing—not that I was going to do anything about it. "I realize sleeping with me can't be easy," I said, "but people have been snoring for a million years."

"Dying before their time for a million years, too."

"Rub the sleep out of your eyes, Mr. Breeze. I've already jumped that hurdle."

Ike quietly ate his gruel. He'd apparently had enough of my stubbornness for one morning. I let James out the back door for his morning pee and then went to the front door to retrieve my Sunday paper off the four-foot rectangle of cement I call my front porch.

By the time I got back to the kitchen, Ike had not only finished his oatmeal, he'd finished mine. I handed him the business section. "You going to church today? You didn't bring your suit."

He went straight for the stock listings. "Of course I'm going to church. I just forgot to bring in my suit from the car."

I like Ike for a lot of reasons. One of them is that he never asks me to go to church with him. And it isn't because I'm white and he's black. At our age, Ike and I are quite comfortable in our respective wrinkled skins. We couldn't care less what other people think. Ike doesn't ask me about church because he knows I wouldn't go. I'm just not churchy. I guess I got my fill of it back in LaFargeville. I spent half of my childhood twisting in a church pew. Maybe I'd go to church if I could find one with a minister who gave five-minute sermons, or a choir that could resist singing all five verses of those awful, throat-burning hymns.


Excerpted from The Unraveling of Violeta Bell by C. R. Corwin Copyright © 2008 by C. R. Corwin. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen 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.

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  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    A fine amateur sleuth tale

    For over three decades septuagenarian Maddy ¿Morgue Mama¿ Sprowls has run the information library at The Hannawa Herald-Union. Her preference is to hide in the morgue where she helps the reporters obtain what they need to do a story she never offers a story to the editors.------------- However, Maddy notices four female senior citizens using a taxi to go to garage sale hopping. She thinks their travels would make a wonderful warm human interest story. So after rarely stepping into the newsroom, Maddy enters to offer her idea. To her glee, the story runs highlighting the treasure hunting of former antique dealer Violeta Bell, retired stripper Kay Hausenfelter, realtor Gloria McPhee, and philanthropist Ariel Wilburger-Gowdy. However, not long afterward, someone murders Violeta. Maddy plans to hide in the morgue, but feels guilty wondering if her article led to the homicide. She begins to DIG for clues.------------- The fun in this fine amateur sleuth is observing the changing reactions of Maddy during the story line especially as she feels come culpability so reluctantly investigates only to learn she is enjoying the sleuthing she hides that from everyone who sees the irritable and kvetching Morgue Mama. The four garage sale hoppers are unique eccentric protagonists. Violeta insists that she is the rightful queen of Romania Kay¿s willing to perform an exotic dance Gloria is ready to show off a house at any time except garage sale time and Ariel wants to save the world one garage at a time. Fans will enjoy Maddy¿s inquiry into this elderly quartet (starting with the deceased) and other suspects, as this is an enjoyable Morgue Mama murder mystery (see THE CROSS KISSES BACK and DIG)------------ Harriet Klausner

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