Judgment of the Grave, Sarah Stewart Taylor, St. Martin's Minotaur, $6.99.
It's hard to say why some books appeal and some books don't; I think one thing that might be true of any interesting book is that it might not appeal to everyone, because if it's interesting, it's bound to reflect the quirks and intelligence of the mind behind it. There are lots of wonderful novelists to whom this applies - Loren Estleman is a local example - and I think this is true of Sarah Stewart Taylor's marvelous Sweeney St. George series - it may not appeal to everyone, but if you relate to the quirkiness of these books, you'll probably love them. I'm happy to report that this third book featuring Sweeney is the strongest entry yet in what I hope will be a long lived series - Stewart Taylor has given herself plenty to work with to keep the series juiced. The central character, Sweeney, is an art historian who specializes in gravestone art - this topic is always included in the books in some completely fascinating way, to the point where I often wish there were photographs included, even though I know the stones she's talking about don't really exist. Sweeney is a 30 something who's still finding herself - and I know some older women who aren't interested in this series because they're past that point - they think, what could a 28 or 30 year old have to say to me that might resonate? I have to answer, plenty. The author's own youth gives the series lots of vitality, and Sweeney herself is mature enough to have a fairly measured view of the world, with some exceptions.
In Sweeney's latest outing, she's researching gravestones in historic Concord, Massachusetts, a place so full of history she's practically tripping over it at every turn. She's on hiatus from her job; her research in Concord thus puts her on the scene of the crime in a believable way, where she's able to contribute her very specific expertise to solving it. This is unusual in mystery series at the moment where characters are chefs, seamstresses, bead makers, wedding planners, etc, who, like Jessica Fletcher in "Murder She Write" stumble over bodies with the flimsiest of excuses. Not only do I appreciate that Stewart Taylor has taken the time to believably fold her amateur into a police investigation, I think it's a flexible enough set up that she can continue to use it. In this installment, she meets an ill 12 year old in the graveyard and follows him home because she's worried about him getting there safely. When he takes a detour into the woods and finds a body, the story really heats up.
One of the things I like about this series is that it wears its heart on it's sleeve; there's not much emotion that's not wrenched out of the illness of the 12 year old boy, Pres Whiting, but at the same time, it's never corny. His family, conveniently enough, is in the monument making business, i.e. gravestones, and their gratitude to Sweeney, who's befriended Pres and helped him out when he discovered the body, gives her an in that even the local police don't have. The cop from the last book, (Mansions of the Dead) Tim Quinn, turns up to investigate the murder with his infant daughter in tow. Sweeney ends up providing a good bit of child care; but his struggles with finding out how to take care of his daughter when she's sick, etc., are completely real. I was glad to see him return as well because he and Sweeney have an interesting friendship which has lots of room for change and growth.
The book involves Revolutionary War era re-enactors, and provides a good but far from intrusive dose of Revolutionary War history; Stewart Taylor is also able to highlight many of the various characters in town with a sharp and perceptive eye. The "sidebar" characters are never unmemorable or carelessly dealt with. The plot is both complex and moving; and the resolution is very satisfactory. This is a new young author who richly deserves to be discovered and savored. (Robin)
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