Long-lost relatives and priceless jewels turn a wedding upside down
For all the Kellings’ quirks, no other family in Boston is more adept at throwing a wedding. So when Max Bittersohn’s wife, Sarah Kelling, offers to organize his nephew’s nuptials, Max is smart enough to stay out of her way. But when the art-fraud investigator stumbles onto a family mystery, he is drawn into something far more serious than the question of who will catch the bouquet. Stolen years earlier, the priceless Kelling jewels were last seen in Amsterdam, so how did they end up among the wedding gifts? Max is trying to answer that question when a talkative burglar wallops him with a shovel in a failed attempt to rip off the rubies. Then, as the reception winds down, a hot-air balloon lands on the wedding tent, spilling out the Zickerys, a branch of the Kelling clan who prove even odder than the original strain. Family weddings are never easy, but for Max Bittersohn, this one could be murder.
About the Author
Charlotte MacLeod (1922–2005) was an internationally bestselling author of cozy mysteries. Born in Canada, she moved to Boston as a child, and lived in New England most of her life. After graduating from college, she made a career in advertising, writing copy for the Stop & Shop Supermarket Company before moving on to Boston firm N. H. Miller & Co., where she rose to the rank of vice president. In her spare time, MacLeod wrote short stories, and in 1964 published her first novel, a children’s book called Mystery of the White Knight. In Rest You Merry (1978), MacLeod introduced Professor Peter Shandy, a horticulturist and amateur sleuth whose adventures she would chronicle for two decades. The Family Vault (1979) marked the first appearance of her other best-known characters: the husband and wife sleuthing team Sarah Kelling and Max Bittersohn, whom she followed until her last novel, The Balloon Man, in 1998.
Read an Excerpt
"I had the damnedest dream last night."
Max Bittersohn, art expert par excellence and scourge of the international art underworld, felt around with his bare right foot for his right-foot slipper. Of course he got the wrong one.
"What the hell? Sarah, would you mind counting my toes for me?"
"To see how many feet I've got."
Sarah Kelling Kelling Bittersohn had been married to Max long enough to know that early morning was not his best time. With a big family wedding only hours away, time was becoming of the essence, if it already wasn't, but there would be no earthly use in trying to prod him into action before he'd had his second cup of coffee. She fished the errant slipper out from under the conjugal bed, hung it on her husband's left big toe, and poured a cup of the life-giving beverage from the carafe she had brought up from the kitchen.
"What did you dream, darling?"
"As far as I can recall, it was something about a goon squad of purple cockatoos in green velvet combat boots, shooting dried peas at me through bright pink peashooters."
"Aha, the Freudian element rears its outmoded head. No doubt the wedding inspired that vulgar image. But why pink, and why peashooters?"
"Why not?" Max had finally grasped the logistics of matching toes to slippers; he stuck out his footwork for Sarah to admire. "My guess is that the cockatoos had run out of blowpipes and were having to improvise."
"But why were they shooting peas at you? Beans would be more effective, I should think. Did it sting when they hit?"
"Nah, they always missed. How come you've got so many clothes on?"
"Because I had to get out at the crack of dawn and show the tent raisers where to raise the tents."
That got Max moving. Summoning all his energy, he reached for the cup. "Why the hell didn't you wake me up? I'd have raised them for you."
"Not to put it too crudely, my love, I'll bet you any sum up to a Kennedy half-dollar that I know a lot more than you do about putting up tents. Aunt Emma had me fully trained in the art of tent raising by the time I was twelve years old."
Max put on his most truculent sneer. "Don't hand me that nonsense, kiddo. You've never raised a tent in your life."
"Of course I haven't," Sarah replied sweetly. "We Kellings do not raise tents; we merely stand around harassing the tent raisers into doing precisely what we want them to do, as opposed to letting them do what they foolishly imagine we're going to let them get away with."
"I could at least have helped you with the nagging and harassing," Max insisted.
"No, dear, you couldn't. Talents like Aunt Emma's and mine are either bred in the bone or they aren't. I'm sorry to tell you this, Max, but you just don't have what it takes to terrorize a tent raiser. You lack the steely stare in your eyes and the je ne sais quoi in the tightening of your lips, just so much and not a millimeter more. Or less, depending on the circumstances. I'd better warn you right now that many a professional tent raiser has arrived on the job in the prime of health and vigor, only to stagger and collapse once he's felt the laserlike glint of the Kelling eyeball."
Max studied his wife with sleepy satisfaction. Kellings came in two sizes, long and short; Sarah was a pleasing example of the latter variety, with baby fine brown hair and greenish hazel eyes set in her small, squarish face. Her naturally pale complexion was pink with exertion and excitement, and the jeans and shirt she had assumed in order to bully the tent makers set off a nicely shaped figure.
Quite a contrast to the white-faced little creature he'd first beheld on a television newscast, shivering in front of the Kelling family vault on Beacon Hill, where a particularly inappropriate set of remains had just been discovered. That same night Max had met her in person, swathed in something warm and fuzzy and blue, and made the dreadful mistake of assuming she was Alexander Kelling's daughter instead of his wife.
After that Max had somehow or other happened to run into the younger Mrs. Kelling every so often, trying to think of her as a nice woman who lived on the Hill with her autocratic blind and deaf mother-in-law and her handsome, elderly husband. The fact that Max had been born and brought up on the North Shore, where the Kelling family had a rambling old summer place, made these happenings look a little more plausible.
He'd been visiting his parents the day the Kellings' vintage Milburn, which had been for so long one of the North Shore's most picturesque sights, had gone over the cliffs with Alexander and his mother inside. Knowing Sarah would be alone and in a state of shock, he'd hung around his brother-in-law's garage, hoping she would stop for gas on her way back to Boston. She had. Max had offered her a ride back to Beacon Hill; she'd cried all the way and looked like hell by the time they got there. That was when Max Bittersohn realized he'd been in love with Sarah Kelling ever since that otherwise abominable night at the Lackridges'.
Gradually he'd promoted himself to acting knight errant, telling himself that he wasn't making a nuisance of himself, just trying to help a sorrowing widow over a rough time; knowing all the time that he was lying his head off and wishing to hell she'd walk into his arms, murmuring, "Take me, Max, I'm yours if you want me." It had taken longer than he would have liked, but now, by God, she was his and he was hers, and Davy, the world's most intelligent child, was three years old.
"Did it work?" he asked.
"How can you ask? Though I must admit." Sarah admitted, "I've never seen such a bunch of incompetents as this crew. They didn't seem to know a tent peg from a parasol. However, thanks to Aunt Emma's expert coaching, I had that whole tent-raising crew groveling at my feet in four minutes and thirteen seconds this morning. Aunt Emma could have had them all straightened out and flying right in half that time, but of course she's had all those extra years of practice. Speaking of Aunt Emma, you might give some thought to getting dressed. Some of the guests will probably arrive early, in typical Kelling fashion, and there's a great deal to be done."
"Do you have to remind me?" Max growled. "Where's Davy?"
"Right out there on the seaward deck, fishing for cardboard minnows. See him? He's planning to send the minnows home to their mothers when it gets to be nap time. And you, my love, are detailed to drive him over to Mrs. Blufert's. She'll keep him with her until after the wedding service."
Max hadn't been overly pleased to hear that his son wasn't going to be in the wedding party. "Why can't he stay here with us?"
"Darling, you ought to know what a distraction even one small child can be at a big family gathering," Sarah argued. "Davy has better manners than most three-year-olds, I'm happy to say, but a girl likes her wedding day to go perfectly. Tracy is a darling, and deserves the best."
"She is that," Max agreed. "I don't know how my nephew managed to snare her."
"Mike is a darling, too," said Mike's aunt by marriage. "Miriam has everything arranged to a fare-thee-well, so we'd better leave it to her."
Miriam Rivkin, Max's only sibling, was a happy mother today. Here was her son with a brand-new degree in engineering, and there was a wisp of a girl named Tracy all ready to put on a wedding gown into which Miriam had sewn a blessing with every stitch. And here pretty soon would come Mother Bittersohn to watch her greatest dream come true.
Max's mother had wanted a second daughter ever since her Miriam had proved to be such a jewel. She'd got a boy instead. She'd accepted him with relatively good grace and planned for him to become a wealthy podiatrist with an office not far from his parents' home. Unfortunately, Max wasn't attracted to feet. Eventually she'd had to face the fact that there was no way her boy would ever quit racketing around the globe in pursuit of other people's stolen property. She'd hoped he'd marry a nice Jewish gift; he'd married a member of the Codfish Aristocracy and sired a son who was already showing ominous signs that he'd turn out to be the spit and image of his father. But what could you do! as Mother Bittersohn herself often said.
Mrs. Blufert, Sarah's part-time housekeeper and babysitter, had two grandchildren of her own visiting for the day; they knew and liked Davy. The three would play for a while, eat a simple lunch, take their naps, and play a little longer. Then Mrs. Blufert would dress Davy in a clean suit, if he still had one by then, and send him home fresh and rested so that Sarah and Max could show their guests what a clever son they'd managed to bring forth now they'd got the knack.
"What's on my agenda besides Davy and the minnows?" Max wanted to know.
"Shave, shower, get dressed, deliver Davy, come back, and be ready to leap into any last-minute breaches that may open up. There are sure to be some. Make sure you put on your light gray suit instead of the dark one and stand around looking elegant and suave when you have nothing else to do. Think you can handle all that?"
"I'll work on it. Any more coffee kicking around?"
"Need you ask?"
Sarah refilled Max's cup, peeked out the window to make sure Davy hadn't fallen into the minnow bucket, and treated herself to a sip of her husband's coffee.
"We'd better not drink too much of this," she warned. "You're jittery enough already."
"Who, me?" said Max. "What do you think, katzele? Is it going to work?"
"Oh, I expect so. Tracy's people have sent some lovely presents, but I don't suppose many of the senders will show up in person. Most of them seem to be wrapped up in their jobs and their divorces. Her wretched old father didn't even respond to the invitation. I gather he's hot on the trail of wife number five. At least Tracy's mother is here. Her name's Jeanne, in case you've forgotten; Miriam says she stayed up half the night making knishes for the buffet. I think that's rather sweet, don't you? Perhaps it made Jeanne feel like a member of the family, poor soul. She's gone all to pieces since Tracy's father filed for divorce. Though why any woman would want to stay married to a selfish woman-chasing pickle manufacturer is beyond my comprehension."
"His millions might have something to do with it," Max suggested.
"That's what they're fighting about, I believe," Sarah admitted. "He doesn't want to give her a cent, and she's holding out for lots of alimony. Goodness knows that family hasn't much in the way of family feeling. Tracy's stepbrother claims he has to stay in his laboratory and tend his fruit flies. I hope they bite him. Tracy's such a darling; does it strike you that she's almost as much in love with Miriam and Ira as she is with Mike?"
"So? Is that bad?" Max wandered over to the window.
"Of course not. It's wonderful" said Sarah. "But I must get back downstairs. Brooks and Theonia will be along pretty soon with four dozen chocolate tortes which need to be refrigerated until it's time to set the dessert tables. Uncle Jem's coming with them if Egbert can haul him out of bed and get him dressed in time."
"You do have the damnedest relatives," Max remarked.
"They've been damnably useful to you, you ungrateful brute," Sarah said spiritedly. "Where would your detective agency be without Cousin Brooks and his Theonia, not to mention my who knows how many times removed cousin Jesse?"
"The ex-delinquent," Max agreed with a grin. "All right, my love, I'll give you Cousin Brooks and the beauteous Theonia and even Jesse. But your uncle Jem is another kettle of chowder. What wild scheme has he got in mind this time?"
"He claims he's going to bartend in his fancy vest and red satin arm garters, but Egbert says he isn't, not in front of Mother Bittersohn."
"Let's hope the faithful factotum can control him, then. I sure as hell can't." Max yelped and ducked away from the window. "Here comes a carload of revelers already. What the hell time is it? Did our clocks stop and I'm late before I start?"
"Of course not, silly. It's Cousin Anne with the bouquets and buttonholes. She promised to bring the flowers over early. Oh, they're beautiful!" Sarah sighed as she watched Anne unload the flowers. The large and intricately intermarried Kelling clan could be a nuisance at times, but its members boasted a diversity of talents. Percy Kelling, Anne's husband, was the dullest of dull sticks, according to Uncle Jem, but even Jem admitted that dullness wasn't necessarily a handicap to a first-class CPA. Sarah had had very little to do with Percy's wife, Anne, until Anne had called her and Max in to recover a treasured family painting that featured an oversize parrot and its owner. Since then Anne had attached herself to Sarah like a clinging vine of the Convolvulaceae family and had applied her horticultural talents to the improvement of the Bittersohn acres. What Anne could do with a sack of manure and a few flats of annuals was little short of miraculous, and her flower arrangements were works of art.
By the time Max emerged properly dressed in the light-gray suit and the gray-and-white tie that Mike and Tracy had decided would be just the ticket for an outdoor wedding on a lovely September day, a sort of organized pandemonium had set in. Mindful of Sarah's list, Max ate a quick breakfast, collected Davy and a few changes of clothing, and drove to Mrs. Blufert's, where he gave each of the three children a wiggly wooden alligator with little green wheels for feet and a red mouth that opened and shut most fearsomely when a child hauled it around on a string.
Max stayed to show the children how to run an alligator race. After he came in a poor fourth, he went home to tell his father, who had made the alligators, what a great time the children were having with their new toys and reported back to his calm and collected wife.
How Sarah had contrived a perfect day for Mike's wedding was a puzzlement to everybody but Max. He'd known from the start that it wouldn't dare to rain with his wife bossing the show. The temperature was exactly seventy degrees Fahrenheit and would not go much higher or lower until sundown. Every now and then a puff of white cloud wafted across the bright blue sky like a giant blob of whipped cream on its way to frost a celestial wedding cake. Far overhead, the sun beamed down upon the enchanted place that Cousin Anne and Mr. Lomax, the gardener, had created out of an ugly, water-worn hillside, a few truckloads of fish offal, and heaven only knew how many chrysanthemums, each single plant carefully selected, color-coordinated, and set into the fishgut-enriched soil by Anne Kelling's expert hands.
Following his wife's instructions, Max went to the library, where the wedding gifts were on display. Early-arriving guests were trickling into the room, most of them just looking, a few trying to peek at the donors' names and addresses, which had been written on plain white cards and stuck facedown under the gifts. Miriam and Sarah had tried to keep a running list of who'd sent what; it hadn't been easy. Parcels were still coming through the mail, by UPS, by Federal Express, by personal visits from friends, neighbors, relatives on the Rivkin side, on the Bittersohn side, from classmates of Mike's and Tracy's, from people whose names hardly anybody could recall having heard before, even from a few Kellings who had the good sense to appreciate Max and his family.
The best of the presents weren't on display. Ira had already presented his son and future daughter-in-law with a meticulously restored 1956 Ford Thunderbird. Miriam's gift to the bride was a complete set of the finest cookware, along with a file of her own tried and tested recipes and a promise of cooking lessons as soon as Tracy had mastered the art of turning on the stove. Best of all was a joint gift to the newlyweds, the one building on the old Kelling summer place that had been worth saving.
For months now, a crew headed by the elder Bittersohns and financed by Sarah and Max had been remodeling the former carriage house. The ground floor had been divided in two: half for the Thunderbird, the other half insulated, paneled, and heated as a studio for Tracy, who was already gaining some notice as a potter. Upstairs, a pleasant bedroom and sitting room would catch the sunrises and sunsets over the ocean. There were also a small but functional bathroom, an office for Mike, and a kitchen just about big enough to hold Miriam's cookware and the cook. What with the largesse already heaped upon them and the gifts not yet unwrapped, the newlyweds were starting to wonder whether they should build an ell on the carriage house or open a general store.
Max examined the display with a considering, expert's eye and decided to ignore his wife's suggestion that he check the list she and Miriam had begun as soon as the gifts began to arrive. She'd just said that to keep him out of mischief. Anyhow, he didn't know where she'd put the damned list. Besides, it was impossible to do the job under these conditions, with people coming and going and wanting to talk and getting in the way. The pace was picking up. More guests were coming, more food being delivered, more people wanting to see the presents. Where, he wondered, had all this stuff come from? The glittering array covered the desk, the library table, and the other tables that had been brought in from various rooms and draped decorously in white linen. Six coffeemakers, four blenders, several other gadgets whose functions he was afraid to speculate about, vessels of silver, crystal, china, pottery, plastic, feathers ... Max did a double take. They were feathers, dry, molting, faded feathers, covering a bowl the size of a washbasin. Its original function was questionable, its present utility nil. That had to have come from the Kelling side. The Kellings never threw anything away. Maybe this was one of Aunt Apple's family treasures.
Tearing his incredulous eyes away from the object, Max was pleased to see Egbert, Uncle Jem's aged and invaluable valet de chambre, companion, and all-round good egg. They exchanged greetings that were, at least on Max's part, heartfelt. The room was too crowded. People were getting fingerprints on the silver, and jostling the tables, and picking up those handy white cards and probably not putting them back with the right gifts. Egbert was up to the job. Max watched admiringly as Egbert moved from one group to another, murmuring hints about coffee and pastries on the deck and suggesting guests might care to stroll down to the carriage house for a look at the Thunderbird, the studio, and the upstairs living quarters, giving special attention to the curtains and pillow tops, all embroidered by Mrs. Bittersohn Senior using motifs taken from Tracy's prizewinning pottery, which could already be seen in some of the more prestigious decorating shops.
Finally the place began to clear out, and Max, who had decided to concentrate on looking elegant and debonair, relaxed. People were drifting toward the big tent, where the bridal couple would stand to take their vows. Egbert tactfully urged the last of the viewers away, leaving Max alone in the library. Max glanced at his watch. He'd better get out there and make like a host until the ushers had got everybody seated. He cast a final glance over the wedding gifts, and froze.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Charlotte MacLeod's tales of plucky New England aristocrat Sarah Kelling, her Jewish art-expert husband Max Bittersohn, and her large, loony family are a reading experience that (in my experience) you either love or hate. The characters, the dialog, and the situations are amusing in the no-relation-to-reality way of 1930s movies but the mysteries are flimsy to the point of absurdity. This late entry in the series exhibits that quality more than most. Fans of the series will find it an enjoyable, if familiar, outing with old friends. Non-fans are unlikely to make it past the second chapter.
This book was okay but it takes you a while to get into it. I have read other Charlotte MacLeod books, but this was not one of my favorites. It is interesting but at some parts it is slow.