Too much knowledge can be deadly for P.I. Sarah Booth Delaney in her latest undertaking in Smarty Bones, the thirteenth novel in Carolyn Haines's award-winning mystery series.
Professor Olive Twist has come to Zinnia, Mississippi, to study a mysterious grave wherein lies the Lady in Red, an anonymous but perfectly preserved and stunningly beautiful body. Since the discovery of the grave in 1969, Mississippi schoolchildren have been making up colorful stories about the Lady in Red's identity and past, but no one has come any closer to learning the truth. Now, Olive claims she can not only identify the corpse, she can also prove the woman's scandalous role in the nation's history. Olive takes it a step too far, though, when she starts connecting elite Zinnia families with the same scandal.
"Delightfully fun."New York Post
Dander up, Zinnia's society ladies know only one way to handle Olive: they call on the private investigative services of Sarah Booth Delaney. But the truth behind Olive's research is clear as Mississippi mud, and when Sarah Booth discovers a present-day dead body, she knows there's more than just family pride and Southern heritage at stake. If she can't find the murderer, and fast, it might just be Sarah Booth's life on the line next.
"If you enjoy mysteries with rich Southern settings, fascinating history, and quirky characters, you'll devour this one quicker than a plate full of buttermilk biscuits."Mystery Scene magazine
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By Carolyn Haines
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2013 Carolyn Haines
All rights reserved.
Heat and humidity commingle to form a thick haze over the cotton fields, muting the lush green plants to monochromatic grays. The haunting vista captures my heart, and I stop my labors and lean for a moment on my broom. I've only swept half the front porch of Dahlia House—not exactly hard work—yet sticky sweat trickles down my spine. The autumnal equinox has come and gone, and in another week the calendar will flip. October will arrive and break September's stifling heat. The cotton bolls will split and mechanical harvesters will comb the fields like huge insects that produce boxcar-sized bales of long-fiber cotton. Fall has officially arrived around the nation, but it is still hot as hell in Zinnia, Mississippi.
Gazing out over the fields, I'm flooded with memories and emotions. This is Delaney land, my land, the heritage handed down from generations of farmers and planters who grew cotton and built wealth, and then lost the money—but not the land. Never the land. When my father plied his law degree, Dahlia House shone like a crown in the sun. My mother was the prized jewel; everything around her sparkled.
The tragedy of a perfect childhood is that it ends. Adulthood brings worries and responsibilities. Perfection fades. I remember a conversation I had, not long ago, with Sunflower County sheriff Coleman Peters. He told me the best any grown-up could hope for was a sixty-forty decision, meaning that whatever choice was made, it would be, at best, sixty percent right. He's a wise man.
My childhood was a hundred percent marvelous. I had it all: parents who loved me and our community, land that produced amazing crops, an environment that encouraged me to dream big and go for it, a heritage of honor and courage. I also live with the daily knowledge that it all disappeared one night as my parents drove home from a political gathering in Jackson. On a dead-straight Delta road, Daddy flipped the car. Both of my parents died instantly.
The cause of the wreck has always been a mystery. Most folks think a deer or a dog ran out of the cotton fields and my father swerved to avoid hitting it and lost control. Some people have been insensitive enough to posit the idea that my father fell asleep at the wheel. Even though the autopsy proved otherwise, some folks insist my parents had been drinking.
The truth is, there is no truth. I've gone to that lonely stretch of road more times than I can count. It's straight and flat, bordered on both sides by cotton fields. Few roads intersect it. The night of the wreck was clear, the stars out in abundance. I remember, because I sat on the front porch with Aunt Loulane for an hour or so after dinner, talking about my studies, waiting for my folks to come home and fill me in on their adventures.
At twelve years old, I thought I should be allowed to stay home alone, but Mother insisted Aunt Loulane come and "keep me company." A good thing, too. The news that your world has exploded shouldn't be heard alone.
I inhale deeply and slowly to release the anger and frustration roiling in my chest. I cling to the memories of my parents in the good moments, the times of laughter and joy. Trips back to the night of their deaths do nothing but upset me. I've gone over it a million times. I've read the accident reports, viewed the photos of the Volvo my father preferred to drive because it was safer than a convertible. Twenty-two years have passed, and the grief is as close as my own skin. Some wounds never heal, but as Aunt Loulane would say, we learn to carry the pain and keep walking.
I pick up the broom. Work is my solace. Perhaps my abilities as a private investigator come from the puzzle of my parents' death. Why did they wreck? What happened to make my father lose control of the car? No one has ever answered those questions to my satisfaction. For more than two decades, I've chewed on what I know to be the facts. Still, to misquote Mick Jagger, I can get no satisfaction.
A noise on the side of the house makes me think Jitty is about to put in an appearance. She's a self-centered ghost, but she also has a keen ability to ferret out those times when the past looms larger than the present for me. The idea of a confrontation with my own personal Civil War–era ghost perks up my spirits. Jitty is feisty, opinionated, and the yin to my yang. I wouldn't go so far as to call her the voice of reason, but sometimes she makes a good point.
Hurrying around the corner of the house, I stop. Jitty isn't in evidence. My horses graze peacefully in the pasture beside the barn, and my hound, Sweetie Pie, and the newest member of the Delaney household, Pluto, a fat black cat I semi-acquired from my last case, are digging for a mole. My dead relatives rest without interruption in the family cemetery behind the house. That I'm rooted to this place in a way many people don't understand slams hard into me.
Some might say my connection to Dahlia House is Southern in nature, or perhaps part of my Irish heritage. I say that folks who don't cherish the place of their birth, the residence of their family, the home and land where memories are created and linger, and the final resting place of cherished family, have never known what it means to love. While I love my fiancé, the most talented Graf Milieu, I need the expanse of land that spreads before me.
Instead of calling Jitty, I return to the porch and my chore. It's nice to have the time to do a little something for the grand old lady, Dahlia House. I've contracted a painter to fix her up with a new coat of white as soon as the weather cools and the humidity drops. Other repairs will require carpentry skills and more money. Thank goodness our last Delaney Detective Agency client—despite a bit of confusion over who hired whom—paid us. My partner, Tinkie Bellcase Richmond, doesn't need the cashola, but I sure do.
I wipe the sweat from my forehead and wonder how Graf is handling his golf game in the torrid zone. He's spent enough time in Mississippi to understand the danger of heatstroke, but for a lot of the summer, his film work had kept him in balmy Los Angeles. Graf Milieu is a name destined to glow in neon on movie house marquees. My man is not only handsome and smart, he's talented.
Sweetie Pie's mournful howl alerts me to impending company. A car I don't recognize—a brand-new silver town car—tears down the driveway. Leaning on my broom, I wait to see who will alight. In the old days, company often showed up on the porch for an afternoon cup of coffee or a highball. Those days, when my mother, Libby Delaney, dispensed advice and help to anyone who darkened the door, hold great fondness for me. I learned much about human nature listening to people talk at our kitchen table.
Times have changed, though, and I wondered if the driver of the car was a new client for the PI agency.
To my surprise, one of my mother's friends got out from the driver's side. Frances Malone wore a smart yellow sundress with a matching jacket, a black-and-white-striped straw hat with a yellow ribbon, and yellow sling-back shoes. There wasn't a speck of dust or a single dog hair anywhere on her. She looked like she was going to a fashion luncheon.
"Mrs. Malone," I said, propping the broom against the column and walking down the steps to meet her. Over the last few years at home, I'd run into her in town and at the grocery, but she hadn't paid a visit to Dahlia House in years—at least since before I left for college, and that was better than a dozen years ago. Frances was a Delta society lady, but she had also been my mother's friend. "What brings you to Dahlia House?"
"I need your help," Frances said. "I'm desperate, Sarah Booth. You have no idea how awful this woman is, and what she intends to do. She has to be stopped. You have to stop her."
I put a steadying hand on her elbow and guided her up the steps to one of the rockers. "Take a seat, Ms. Frances. May I get you some lemonade?"
"Water would be nice, Sarah Booth." She calmed a little and assessed me. "You look so much like your mother." She blinked quickly. "There's not a day goes by that I don't miss Libby Delaney."
"Me, too." I patted her shoulder. A memory of Frances sitting at the kitchen table drinking a mimosa on a Sunday morning came back to me. Mama had been at the stove making her famous French toast, and Frances recounted some foolishness at The Club, Zinnia's bastion of culture and golf. I'd walked into the kitchen from outside, struck by the beauty of the two laughing women.
"Libby would know what to do," Frances said, her agitation returning. "She'd know how to fix this monster."
I hustled to get some water before I asked any questions. I'd never seen Frances so rattled. Whatever was happening had to be pretty awful.
When I returned, I found Pluto sitting in her lap purring. After she'd sipped the water and her respiratory rate had slowed, I pulled up another rocker. "What's going on?"
"It's just too awful." She shielded her eyes with a hand.
"You have to tell me, if you want me to help." I wasn't certain it was as serious as Frances thought, but I needed the facts.
"A woman has come to town. A scholar from New England. Dear me, I think I'm going to be sick. She's driven me to public vomiting! It's the final humiliation."
"Calm down, Ms. Frances." I put a steadying hand on her arm. "I'll help you, but I'm confused. An academic is here, and this is a bad thing?" Surely this would be right up Frances's alley. She and her friends loved learning and education. While Ole Miss was thought to be a superior school, many of the children of her set aspired to attend Yale or Harvard. The Ivy League seal of approval went a long way in business relationships.
"You have no idea. She's a historian at Camelton College. Impeccable PhD. The school is well respected—one of the new Ivy League contenders. Its campus appeals to the snow set. Skiers and hikers"—she waved a hand—"those tedious cold-weather sports New Englanders love."
Frances's reverse snobbery amused me. "What's she doing in Zinnia?" We weren't a hot spot for historical research, unless it involved some of the Native American tribes that enriched area history or the well-trod terrain of the Civil War.
"She's here to stir up trouble and besmirch the good names of your friends." Frances burst into tears. "It's just the most awful thing I've ever heard, Sarah Booth. And she's going all over town saying the worst things about the families of Cece Dee Falcon and Oscar Richmond. She claims the Richmond and Falcon families were involved in President Lincoln's assassination."
Smote speechless would be the correct term for me. I tried to digest what Frances had said from several directions, and none worked. "Wait a minute. She's saying Oscar's and Cece's ancestors plotted with John Wilkes Booth to kill Lincoln? How could she possibly have any evidence? I mean, this is nuts."
"Then you have to stop her." She brought a tatted-lace handkerchief from her purse and dabbed her eyes.
"Who is she?"
"Her name is Dr. Olive Twist and—"
I held up a hand. "Olive Twist? Are you kidding me? As in the female version of the Dickens character, Oliver Twist?"
"Her parents were Victorian scholars, or at least that's what she said." Frances didn't even crack a smile at the absurdity of it. She was that upset. "She's a horrid woman. Skinny as a rail and with huge feet. Poisonous. So how are you going to get her out of town?"
My breath escaped on a hiss. "Frances, this really isn't my area of expertise. I'm a private investigator. This sounds like something the mayor or supervisors need to probe. Or maybe a lawyer. If she's slandering people, she can be sued."
"You're a detective. Go detect! Find out what she's really up to, and then we'll figure a way to thwart her."
I gave her fingers a squeeze. Although thwarting sounded like fun, I wasn't sure it was appropriate. "It isn't that easy. Is she breaking any laws?"
"She stormed into the September meeting of the Daughters of the Supreme Confederacy right in the middle of Hallie Harper's speech on the mighty efforts of the women of Magnolia, Mississippi, to send buttons and thread to our soldiers in the field. At the time, many buttons were made of bone, and they wore thin and came loose. Soldiers had no means of—" She stopped herself. "Poor Hallie was so rattled by this harpy's conduct she lost her train of thought and couldn't finish her talk."
The Daughters of the Supreme Confederacy was a low-key group of ladies who enjoyed brunches of chicken salad, mimosas, and programs highlighting the efforts of Confederate womenfolk to support the men they loved. I knew many of the stories because my ancestor Alice Delaney, with the help of a smart young slave, Jitty, had worked tirelessly to support the Confederate troops and to save Dahlia House from the destruction of war, and later from the carpetbaggers.
"Okay, the woman is rude," I conceded. "But what harm can she really do? Oscar and Cece will sue her for slander if she keeps this up, but you need to chill, Frances. Remember, sticks and stones can break—"
"You sound exactly like your aunt Loulane, and I don't mean that as a compliment. Dr. Twist means to drag the Richmond and Falcon names through the mud and enjoy doing it. Cece is your friend. And Tinkie Bellcase Richmond is Oscar's wife and your business partner. You have a vested interest in this. Friendship demands that you take action."
"We're talking about events that happened nearly two hundred years ago, Frances." One of the worst—and the best—things about Southerners is their total devotion to the reverence of the past. "This is over and done."
Frances started to rise. "I thought you valued your friends. Yet you'll sit back and allow the character of their families to be assassinated by this ... this ... Yankee pseudo-intellectual."
I thought of those long-ago mornings when Frances and my mother plotted and laughed. They were women as different as night and day. My mother didn't give a fig about society or ladies' luncheons. She didn't belong to a single social organization and refused to join The Club because it was elitist. Yet she and Frances had shared a love of land and a deep appreciation for heritage and good friends. "Let me look into it. At least I can talk with her and see what she's up to."
"Oh, Sarah Booth. I knew you were the person to come to. Since you're totally outside society, you can put that woman in her place with whatever means necessary."
Now, that was a nice way for Frances to say I could put a dog-cussing on Olive Twist without behaving in an unladylike fashion, since I wasn't a lady to begin with. I had no honor to lose by getting down in the mud with the hogs.
I walked Frances to her car. "I'll pay a call on Dr. Twist."
"She's staying at The Gardens B and B." She slammed her door and drove away before I could protest.
I had a history with Gertrude Strom, the owner of the B and B in question. She hated me and had since I'd come home to Zinnia from New York. I already rued my offer to intervene. Chances were, if Dr. Twist were left alone, she'd tire of poking at the old, tired Delta society and take herself back home to her teaching duties.
The single good thing: I'd only agreed to speak with Dr. Twist. This wasn't a new case. I could still devote my time completely to my fiancé.
Graf would be with Oscar at The Club until after lunch. As much as I disliked the idea of going to The Gardens, it would be best if I got the chore behind me.
Propping the broom by the front door, I went inside with my hound at my heels and a plump black feline capering along the hardwood floors. A quick cleanup and fresh clothes and I'd be on my way to meet the caustic Dr. Twist.
I turned on the upstairs shower, disrobed, and lathered up. I was towel drying my long chestnut hair when I heard a noise in my bedroom. If Graf was already back from golf, Oscar had skunked him. Still, the prospect of seeing Graf made me rush out of the bathroom and come to a screeching halt.
A woman with a huge head of black curls and wearing a red dress, red shoes, and a garter pointed a cane at me. Perched on the side of her head was a top hat. "Boo-boop-de-doop," she said in a high-pitched baby voice.
Jitty had incarnated as Betty Boop. The resident haint at Dahlia House had gone vintage cartoon on me.
Excerpted from Smarty Bones by Carolyn Haines. Copyright © 2013 Carolyn Haines. 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.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I have enjoyed all the Sarah Booth sagas with this being the exception. It took me 2 weeks to finish this stale read. Do not know why this book was so dull & repetitive. I doubt I will read any future books in the series. ( an honest review)
Fans of Sarah Booth, Tinkie, Cece, Jitty, Sweetie Pie and Chablis and now stalwart feline Pluto, will devour this excellent read as I did! This adventurous romp is layered, and the underlying story of the bonds of family, the meaning of true friendship, and the destruction of festering secrets kept for generations, is absorbing. In this book we see brave Sarah Booth falter many times, only to be supported and truly understood by those who love her in the present as well as the past. The book bites off a chunk of today’s problems, including class, race, and gender hatreds, academic chicanery, and survivalist mentality. as well as probing deeply in to the nature of friendship itself. Don’t miss this one, it was written by a smarty pants author and is a great character advancement for all of our favorite characters. Carolyn Haines can surely write a great book and here’s another in her repertoire!
I have loved every book in this series....until this one! I'm halfway through and it's starting to feel like a chore to trudge to the end. Sarah Booth is normally such a strong, intelligent character, but I find her silly exclamations very distracting and eye-roll-inducing! Even the normally witty and entertaining supporting cast seem dull and uninspired.
Another great book in the Sarah Booth Delaney series. The ending leaves you waiting for the next book to find out what's in her future.
I really enjoyed this whole series. It was well written and kept you guessing till the end of the book.
I absolutley love this series! Makes you want to be south of the Mason Dixon line!