Readers have come to delight in the murder-solving exploits of septuagenarian Sister Mary Helen and her cohort Sister Eileen, two nuns with a nose for nabbing killers. Publishers Weekly calls the Sister Mary Helen Mysteries "refreshingly different" and a "heady mix of humor and suspense." Once you meet this spry, clever sleuth, you'll want to make a habit of reading her adventures again and again.
Timid little Suzanne Barnes was the perfect ecclesiastical secretary: efficient, discreet, self-effacing. So it came as a shock when Suzanne invited Sisters Mary Helen, Eileen and Anne to Ghiradelli Square's Sea Wench Bar to hear her belt out the blues. Sister Mary Helen wondered what secrets lay behind those watery blue eyes. The Sea Wench Suzanne was a revelation: sassy, sexy, dressed to kill. It was her first-and last-performance, punctuated by a silver letter opener in the heart. Who killed the canary? Sister Mary Helen and her faithful band must unearth Suzanne's secrets to solve the murder before all hell breaks loose-again...
About the Author
SISTER CAROL ANNE O'MARIE has been a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet for the past fifty years. She ministers to homeless women at a daytime drop-in center in downtown Oakland, California, which she co-founded in 1990. She has written ten novels featuring Sister Mary Helen.
SISTER CAROL ANNE O'MARIE (1933-2009) was a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet for the fifty years. She ministered to homeless women at a daytime drop-in center in downtown Oakland, California, which she co-founded in 1990. She wrote eleven novels featuring Sister Mary Helen.
Read an Excerpt
Advent of Dying
By Carol Anne O'Marie
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1986 Sister Carol Anne O'Marie
All rights reserved.
NOVEMBER 30 — FEAST OF ST. ANDREW
It was Friday afternoon. Everything about Sister Mary Helen felt like a Friday afternoon. She checked the large wall clock. It groaned a low electric groan, then the big black hand jerked downward to four-thirty. Four-thirty, at last! Long winter shadows dimmed her small inner office. Slowly, the old nun pushed away from her desk. Stretching, she stared out the narrow window.
An early dusk darkened the gray sky. The rasp of the foghorns warned her that a low fog was already billowing in through the Golden Gate. Soon it would blot out the Presidio, then roll up the hill and shroud Mount St. Francis College for Women. Her mind's eye could see the gray blanket closing over Anza Street. Ugh!
Turning back to her desk, Mary Helen began to straighten up the papers scattered across its glass-covered top. She blew away a pile of eraser crumbs. Whoever did away with the old rolltops should be shot, she fumed, rearranging the piles.
Methodically, she flipped the calendar over to December. Adjusting her bifocals, she frowned. It didn't seem possible. Sunday would be December 2, the first Sunday of Advent. She had been in the alumnae office for over a year and the year before that was when she had been sent to the college to retire. Mary Helen smiled. Retire indeed! Where had the two years gone? she wondered. "Time is flying, never to return," good old Virgil had observed fifty years before Christ. In Latin, of course, Mary Helen presumed, but his observation was certainly just as true in any language.
"What are you doing tonight, Sister?" Suzanne Barnes's low voice startled her. The young woman was hanging about just inside the doorway. Her straight black hair fell in limp clumps over her narrow shoulders. A bit of color flushed her plain flat face.
"Nothing much. Why?" Mary Helen perked up, hoping she didn't sound too tired. If Suzanne had a suggestion for the evening, she hated to squelch it. Poor girl seemed to have so few. And, to Mary Helen's way of thinking, there was no reason for it. Suzanne was bright and efficient, and there was something so good about her, you couldn't help but love her.
"Did you have something in mind?" Mary Helen coaxed. She still felt a little guilty about cutting the girl off earlier in the week.
"Are you happy in the convent?" Suzanne had asked her out of the blue.
The question had annoyed Mary Helen. "Would I have stayed fifty odd years if I were unhappy?" is what she wanted to say. Instead, she had mouthed some platitude.
Suzanne had hesitated a moment, as if she were going to confide something. Then she turned without a word and left Mary Helen wondering what it was all about. Maybe this was what she had been leading up to.
"If you're not busy, maybe you'd like to go with me to the Sea Wench." Suzanne dropped her voice to a whisper.
Shoving her glasses up the bridge of her nose, Mary Helen studied the young woman's face. Suzanne's watery blue eyes sparkled. At least Mary Helen imagined she caught a sparkle before the lids closed over them and Suzanne looked away.
"I'll pick you up about seven," Suzanne said, then added nervously, "If you'd like, you can bring a couple of the other nuns. Tonight's my first night. I'll be singing." With a quick, frightened pull, she closed the glass door of the inner office behind her, leaving Mary Helen gaping.
"Well, I'll be switched," she muttered aloud, listening to Suzanne's quick footsteps leave the outer office, then scurry down the stone corridor. Imagine thin, shy little Suzanne singing! It all goes to prove you just never can tell the book by its cover. And if anyone should know that, old girl, you should, Mary Helen reminded herself. Why, for years you've been camouflaging the most spine-tingling mystery stories in your pious plastic prayer book cover.
Chuckling, Mary Helen flipped off the light and left the alumnae office. Gingerly she pattered down the darkening hall toward Sister Anne's campus ministry office. The whole basement floor of the college was deserted. Nothing like a Friday afternoon to clear the entire area. She neared Anne's door. The sweet smell of sandalwood incense permeating the corridor told her that the young nun was still there.
"Come in," a soft voice answered her rap. Cautiously, Mary Helen pushed open the wooden door. She was not surprised to see Sister Anne, eyes closed, pretzeled into her lotus position. A thin curl of smoke from the incense pot circled the young nun's black curly head. A small green yoga pillow jutted out from below her faded blue jeans.
Anne opened one eye. "Hi," she said. "Just relaxing. It's been some week." She sighed. "What's up?"
"What's the Sea Wench and do you want to go?" Mary Helen wasted no time on preliminaries.
Anne's hazel eyes shot open. They looked very wide behind her purple-framed glasses. "It's a bar in Ghirardelli Square," she said, "and the question, more importantly, I think, is, Do you want to go?"
Again Mary Helen shoved her bifocals up the bridge of her nose. "A bar?" she asked, trying not to sound too surprised. "Why, Suzanne told me she was singing there tonight."
Anne closed her eyes again, dropped her head forward, and slowly began to roll it counterclockwise. "She probably has a job waiting tables," Anne explained. "All the waiters and waitresses sing there. Part of the charm of the place."
"Yep." Anne did not explain. She just continued to circle her head.
Mary Helen chose to let sleeping dogs lie.
"Still want to go?" Anne asked.
Want to go? She was dead set to go and get a glimpse of Suzanne's other side. At my age, I should be a little prudent and circumspect, she reminded herself. On the other hand, what's the advantage of being my age if you can't throw a little caution to the wind?
"Yep," she answered, pulling Anne's door closed. "Meet you at the front door of the convent at seven."
"Okay." She heard Anne's muffled voice call through the wooden door.
Deliberately, Mary Helen set out to find her old friend Sister Eileen. By now, Eileen should just about be closing up the Hanna Memorial Library. Even the most diligent scholars usually didn't stay in the library past five on a Friday night. Mary Helen trudged up the stairs from the basement floor where she and Anne shared office space with the athletic department, the communication center, the development office, and all the other departments that came into vogue after the massive stone college had been built in the early thirties. The offices were renovated basement storage space, but like making a silk purse out of a sow's ear, no amount of interior decorating had been able to hide the fact that they were still in the basement. The concrete staircase leading to the ground floor was narrow and dark. Someone had hung a tapestry on the wall to add a touch of class, Mary Helen supposed. Unfortunately, in her opinion, the dark heavy cloth had merely added a touch of bleakness to the musty stairwell.
A loud moan from the foghorns echoed through the deserted stone building. Pulling open the door to the first floor, Mary Helen marveled at how a place could be so alive and vibrant one moment and so dead and dismal the next.
A web of shadows had begun to knit across the arched ceiling of the long parquet hallway. Standing in the deserted hall, she couldn't help thinking of Thomas Moore. "I feel like one Who treads alone some banquet hall deserted, Whose lights are fled, Whose garlands dead, And all but he departed," the old bard had said. She knew his meaning was far more profound, but this afternoon, standing here, she had never understood his simile better. Mary Helen was glad to spot Eileen at the far end, looking for all the world like a plump ball of navy blue, fumbling with a heavy ring of keys. She watched her friend bend forward, insert one of the keys into the lock, then give it a firm twist. Finally, Eileen tugged at the beveled glass door. All was secure.
"Yoo-whoo." Mary Helen's voice rang down the corridor.
Eileen whirled around. An easy smile lit her round wrinkled face. "I was just about to go looking for you," she said with just a slight lilt of a brogue. "How about a nice walk before supper?" She moved quickly down the hall toward her friend. Eileen must have had a bad week, too, Mary Helen reckoned, since walking was one of her favorite panaceas. Cleaning was the other. Mary Helen was glad she'd chosen walking.
"I've a better idea," she said, relieved at how easily the subject was going to be introduced. "How about going to the Sea Wench with Anne and me tonight?"
Eileen's bushy gray eyebrows arched. "The Sea Wench?" she asked incredulously. "Glory be to God, why?"
Maybe it wasn't going to be so easy. Eileen obviously knew what the Sea Wench was. "Because Suzanne is going to sing there tonight and I'd like to support her," Mary Helen said. Support was one of the "now" words Anne always used. It seemed to fit in perfectly.
"Our Suzanne? Singing?" This time Eileen's voice really registered surprise.
"It does seem a bit out of character," Mary Helen agreed. The two old nuns ducked out a side entrance of the empty college building and made their way across the campus. The wet fog had all but swallowed the hill.
Eileen lifted the collar of her navy blue Aran sweater to cover her ears. Wishing she had worn hers, Mary Helen shivered and pulled her blue wool jacket tightly around her. Someone had told her a suit jacket always looked professional.
Who cares how professional you look if you're frozen to death? she wondered, starting down the curved driveway toward the convent, which she could never get used to calling the Sisters' Residence. Although it was only a little before five o'clock, slits of light shone from many of the small windows in the stone building.
"You know, Mary Helen." Eileen's words came out in little white clouds of breath. "One could expect to find Suzanne singing in a church choir someplace, but a public bar?" Wide-eyed, Eileen stared at Mary Helen.
"Did you even know she could sing?"
"No. I've told you before, I never even met the girl until you hired her. You do remember that?"
Mary Helen remembered it, much as she hated to admit it. The incident was one she would never forget.
It had happened shortly after she had helped Inspector Kate Murphy solve the Homicide on Holy Hill murder case. Sister Rose, the Superior of her order, had called for an appointment.
"Mary Helen," the Superior had begun kindly but firmly, "when I sent you here a year ago to retire and do a little research, I had no idea it would lead to finding half a dozen bodies."
Fair enough, Mary Helen had conceded. Who could have foreseen the murder of the head of Mount St. Francis's history department or exactly where the investigation would lead?
"Maybe the history department was a poor choice on my part." Mary Helen did not disagree. Let her squirm a bit; however, she knew squirming was not what Sister Rose did best. She waited silently for the other shoe to drop.
"And since you've become somewhat famous in The City ..."
Mary Helen was glad she hadn't used the word notorious, although the Chronicle had hinted at that when they reported her part in solving the case.
"And since you are acquainted with at least one alumna ..."
Here comes the bottom line. Mary Helen braced herself.
"Kate Murphy. And a very prominent alum at that. Why, the council and I thought it would be a wonderful thing if you would consent to be the alumnae moderator for Mount St. Francis."
"You do realize I'm not an alumna?" Mary Helen had asked, knowing full well the Superior did.
"Yes, of course."
"Nor have I ever taught here."
"I realize that too."
"Those are disadvantages, you know," she had said.
Sister Rose smiled. "But you have a special knack for turning disadvantages into advantages," she said, then launched into the hackneyed proverb about "keeping your eye upon the doughnut and not upon the hole."
Spare me, O Lord, Mary Helen thought, opening her mouth to comment.
"Besides," the Superior rushed on before the old nun had a chance, "the alumnae moderator just quit to get married and Sister Cecilia is desperate." Mary Helen had noticed Cecilia at the breakfast table that very morning. The woman did look haggard, but Mary Helen figured Cecilia was the college president and it did tend to get very lonely at the top. "Please, Mary Helen." Sister Rose was nearly pleading.
"As long as you put it that way, Sister," Mary Helen had said, "I'll give it a whirl."
What the Superior had neglected to mention was that not only had the alumnae moderator resigned but so had the entire staff, which consisted of one secretary. It had taken Mary Helen less than half a day in her new job to realize that a secretary was essential.
She smiled now, remembering how desperate she had been a year ago when she'd suddenly thought of Eileen. If anyone will know where I can enlist an alum to be my secretary, good old Eileen will. Eileen had been at the college for as long as anyone could remember. Anyone, that is, except Mary Helen. Her memory of Eileen went way back. The two had been in the novitiate together. That was where they had become such fast friends and pinochle partners. Mary Helen rarely brought it up, however, since neither of them wanted to admit it was over fifty years ago. Well, you are, after all, only as old as you feel, she had reasoned, rushing down the corridor toward the Hanna Memorial. She met Eileen coming the other way with a thin, black-haired young woman in tow.
"Eileen," she had blurted out, completely ignoring the young woman. "I'm desperate for a secretary. Do you know of any alum that might want the job?"
"Isn't this a coincidence." Eileen smiled warmly toward the silent young woman on her left. "Why, Suzanne Barnes here was just inquiring about a position in the library, but we have a full staff."
Quickly Mary Helen had scrutinized the young woman. Plain but pleasant-looking. About thirty, she calculated. Good, we won't have a flock of boys from the University of San Francisco hanging around the office. Shoulders dropped a bit, probably shy. Mary Helen had studied her eyes. After fifty years of classroom teaching, she considered herself an expert on eyes. The girl's were pale blue and timid, but clear and candid nonetheless, with a certain depth, a little toughness. Good. Probably the type of woman that wears well. I'll take her, Mary Helen thought.
"Coincidence, nothing, it's an act of God," she had said aloud, whisking the startled Suzanne downstairs to her cramped office. She noticed Eileen sputtering and she had wondered why. Halfway through the interview she knew.
"Why didn't you tell me you just met the girl?" she had asked Eileen when she arrived in the Sisters' dining room for lunch.
"For the love of all that's good and holy, who had the chance?" Eileen's gray eyes snapped.
"And that she wasn't even an alumna?"
Eileen set her lips tight and completely ignored the second question. "You do remember saying the whole meeting was an act of God?" she asked instead.
Mary Helen remembered, of course, although she was reluctant to admit it. "Well, I hope it doesn't turn out to be an act of stupidity," she muttered.
Eileen had had the decency to take another bite of her tuna salad and for a few moments say nothing. "We've an old saying at home, you know, and I think a very true one," she had said finally. "It is an ill wind turns none to good." Quickly, she took another bite of tuna fish.
Mary Helen had stared at her friend in amazement. Eileen had an old saying from home to fit every occasion, though she'd left Ireland over fifty years ago. Sometimes Mary Helen suspected she made them up just to fit the circumstances.
All that had happened over a year ago now, and Mary Helen had to admit that Suzanne had worked out well. Very well indeed. In fact, Mary Helen had come to rely on the young woman.
Suzanne was the perfect secretary: efficient, reliable, eager to please. But, something about Suzanne worried Mary Helen. The girl was a little too eager to please. She wished Suzanne could relax, lose a bit of her uneasiness. Mary Helen had tried everything she could think of. Once she even started calling her "Suzie" to see if that would loosen her up, but it didn't seem to fit. Somehow, Suzanne was just not the nickname type.
Hard as she tried, Mary Helen could never quite make Suzanne — what did Sister Anne call it? — "hang loose." And what's more, she could never really tell exactly what was going on behind those watery blue eyes.
If she were perfectly honest with herself, Mary Helen would have to admit that was what bothered her the most about Suzanne. She could not figure the girl out.
Once, right after she hired her, Mary Helen had thought that Suzanne was on the verge of telling her a bit about herself. Maybe she had been too eager to listen, a little too attentive. Whatever, Suzanne had stopped abruptly, almost midsentence, coughed convincingly, and left the room to get some water. Mary Helen had attributed it to shyness. Lately she was beginning to wonder if maybe Suzanne wasn't so much timid as she was just plain guarded. A guarded person. That might be the perfect description of her. And what, she wondered, was Suzanne guarding?
"She never talks about her family or where she's from," Mary Helen had confided to Eileen several weeks before.
Excerpted from Advent of Dying by Carol Anne O'Marie. Copyright © 1986 Sister Carol Anne O'Marie. 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.
Table of Contents
NOVEMBER 30 — FEAST OF ST. ANDREW,
SATURDAY — DECEMBER 1,
FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT,
TUESDAY — FIRST WEEK OF ADVENT,
WEDNESDAY — FIRST WEEK OF ADVENT,
FRIDAY — FIRST WEEK,
SUNDAY — SECOND WEEK OF ADVENT,
TUESDAY — SECOND WEEK OF ADVENT,
THURSDAY — SECOND WEEK OF ADVENT,
FRIDAY — SECOND WEEK OF ADVENT,
SUNDAY — THIRD WEEK OF ADVENT,
MONDAY — THIRD WEEK OF ADVENT,
WEDNESDAY — THIRD WEEK OF ADVENT,
THURSDAY — THIRD WEEK OF ADVENT,
SATURDAY — THIRD WEEK OF ADVENT,
SUNDAY — FOURTH WEEK OF ADVENT,
ST. MARTIN'S PAPERBACK TITLES BY SISTER CAROL ANNE O'MARIE,
MARY HELEN TIPTOED ACROSS THE ROOM, TRYING TO QUIET THE LOUD,
BUMPING OF HER OWN HEART.,