Upstate New York's Smyrna, in the 19th century a utopian community, is no longer a center of religious conviction but continues to support a highly profitable (for its founder's descendants), manufacturing concern. Under the looming shadow of acquisition, however, murder mixes with greed and the collapse of Smyrna's unique mythology in this delightfully wry and knowing debut mystery by BOMC judge McCullough, featuring the Reverend Ziza (rhymes with Liza) Todd, a young Presbyterian minister and graduate student living at Smyrna while she researches her dissertation. The death of Aunt Nan Quick, whose family has led Smyrna since its founding a century earlier, brings far-flung family and community members back to the Catskills. But before the funeral Ziza discovers a skeleton in Nan's closet that turns out to belong to the long-disappeared Quick heir, whose widow, Naomi, a New York copy editor, is back at Smyrna for the first time since her young husband vanished. Deception and betrayal unfold in layers as McCullough's sharply etched, utterly believable characters cope with another murder, undying rivalries and the effects of 19th-century autocratic idealism. Plucky Naomi, one of many characters to frequent local AA meetings, and red-haired Ziza join local police detective Nick Story, MBA whiz-kid Melody Horn, the first outsider ever appointed president of Smyrna, and Hagadorn Mills, official Smyrna historian (on leave from academia, where he's been disgraced by the commercial success of his latest book) to reach, with humor and wisdom, the novel's satisfying conclusion. (Jan.)
McCullough, a compiler of mystery stories (e.g., City Sleuths and Tough Guys , Houghton, 1989), here initiates a series featuring Reverend Ziza Todd, a youthful and sometimes irreverent amateur sleuth. Called to the Olde Smyrna Community (a 19th-century Christian utopian society now known for its class-ring business) in upper New York state to conduct a funeral, Ziza finds herself in the midst of strange goings-on: discovery of a long-missing man's bones; murder of the community leader; and turmoil over possible sellout of the business. Moderately interesting but ultimately dismissible characters, a loose-jointed plot, and plenty of camp-in-the-woods atmosphere make this a mixed bag and marginal purchase.