“The Devil’s Bones”
Author: Carolyn Haines
Publisher: Minotaur Books, St. Martin’s
Price: $26.99 (Hardcover)
Here it is: the twenty-first Sarah Booth Delaney Mystery by Carolyn Haines. She writes them fast—more than one a year—but she doesn’t stint. This mystery is 440 pages—long for a detective story, but what’s the hurry?
Our heroine, Sarah Booth, lives in Dahlia House, in the town of Zinnia in Sunflower County, Mississippi, but in this episode she, her partner in detecting, Tinkie, and the gossip columnist Cece are visiting the “exclusive and isolated” Bexley B&B/spa in Lucedale, in Southeast Mississippi, which is in fact Carolyn Haines’ home town. Tinkie is pregnant, finally, complete with grumpiness, insatiable hunger and sore and swollen feet. Sarah Booth is, alas, not. The ladies are there for the massages, pedicures, haute cuisine and general pampering.
Sarah Booth, as readers know, has in her home in Zinnia, Jitty, the resident ghost of her great- great- grandmother’s slave nanny. We used to think Jitty did not travel but she does now, making a series of spectacular themed appearances in Lucedale. Visible only to Sarah Booth, of course, she appears as Marilyn Monroe, Lisbeth Salander, the girl with the dragon tattoo, Hester Prynne, Princess Di, Scarlett O’Hara, and most appropriately as Persephone, the woman who is allowed to return to the earth for six months from Hades each spring and thus symbolizes rebirth and renewal.
One of the local attractions near Lucedale is a very large miniature Holy Land, sixty acres, built at a scale of one yard to the mile. There is Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, river Jordan, Bethlehem, all of it. Visitors can reproduce the travels of Jesus in miniature.
It is Easter morning and the trio are up, reluctantly, at the crack of dawn, to attend the sunrise service. Afterwards, they come unexpectedly upon the dead body of a much-despised local billboard attorney named Perry Slay.
“He was on his stomach, his arms flung across the Garden of Gethsemane and almost touching the walls of Bethlehem, his face in the shallow river.”
Slay was one sleazy lawyer, so suspects abound. Donna, the owner of the B&B, tells them “Slay was a blight on the community.” “Heck, everyone in town wanted Perry dead.”
Within a very short time, however, there is a cascade of bodies. Walking the Holy Land later they come upon the dead body of “a once beautiful woman” in the Dead Sea. There is no satire of religion here but surely some of this in tongue-in-cheek.
We learn that one section of the extensive Holy Land Gardens is filled with poisonous plants and nicknamed “the Devil’s Bones.”
Before this case is closed there will be more killings, several attempted murders by firearms and arson and the clues will lead Sarah Booth into the past and, surprisingly enough, into the world of competitive ballroom dancing aboard cruise ships.
Several of the local Mississippians turn out to be champion competitive dancers. I did not see that coming.
“The Devil’s Bones” is certainly no cozy—there is way too much blood for that—but neither is it hard-boiled or terse, not Mickey Spillane or Dashiell Hammett. It is a relaxed, sprawling story with plenty of digressions about Cece’s potential new career as a television society reporter, the botany of South Mississippi, the world of ballroom dancing. When Haines feels like it, she describes the beauty of the sheriff’s horse or the joys of Sarah Booth’s classic Mercedes Roadster.
It’s going to be a long summer. Relax and enjoy.
Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors.