Lovely in Her Bones, Sharyn McCrumb, various used editions, $3.50.
It was fun to go back to one of the early Elizabeth McPherson books and see once again what makes Sharyn McCrumb such a delicious writer. When we opened 18 years ago, McCrumb was a hot author; she hadn’t yet begun her ballad series, and the McPherson books hit a certain type of reader in just the right way. They’re still a delight, with a dry humor, a nice sense of character, and a deft way with a story. McCrumb makes these light confections look very easy, and that’s the beauty of them. Lately she’s gotten a bit message-y and she’s lost a bit of her humor (and I say this loving her early ballad books as much as do any mysteries) but these early McPherson books just can’t be beat.
In this installment, Elizabeth is just out of college, trying to figure out what to do with her life, when she decides one thing she might do is spend the summer on her brother’s roommate’s archeological dig. The set up is perfect. Elizabeth is taking a class on herbs and she stumbles across a skull in the woods, which she takes back to the roommate, Milo, for him to take a look at. Meanwhile, in classic McCrumb fashion, her brother is swearing about her nasty herbal cooking and herbal drinks and demanding that they order a pizza. One of McCrumb’s real triumphs in this series was taking this squabbling brother and sister and following them, compellingly, into adulthood. She has a real novelist’s gift along with her light touch.
The discovery of the skull leads back to Milo’s mentor, Dr. Alex Lerche, and his summer dig. Alex is a perfectly drawn academic - caught up in his work, he notices neither the enamored grad student or the increasing disenchantment of his wife who has become more interested in her house, her clothes, and her social standing than in Alex’s bones. This merely puzzles Alex, who, while not selfish, is a true academic. His first love is his study of archeology. When he’s asked by a local Indian tribe to help authenticate their claim that they are a tribe, he delightedly agrees. McCrumb is a master of the sidebar character, and her portrayal of Victor, the spoiled grad student bore, is truly a masterpiece. There’s also an old woman who lives in a remote cabin who knows everything there is to know about herbs, and one of the draws of the dig for Elizabeth is meeting her.
The murders come fast and furiously about halfway through this concise volume - Dr. Alex bites it, as does Victor. The meeting of the two women mourning Alex as they are waiting to be questioned by local law enforcement is delicious, as is “Dummyweed”, the hapless, untrained deputy who can’t shoot a gun (Barney Fife, anyone?) and who gets frequent guard duty. He’s more afraid than any of the students on the site to be alone in the woods, or with the many bones and skulls the students are working with.
The wrap up is just as skillful, involving all threads and characters introduced through the book. While this isn’t my absolute favorite McPherson, it’s a good one. I can’t help but have a special fondness personally for The Windsor Knot, where Elizabeth’s love of all things royal compels her to rush through her wedding simply so she can attend the Queen’s annual garden party. In all of the books there’s a gentle underlying subversiveness to the whole affair, whether McCrumb is gently skewering academia, lawyers (The PMS Outlaws) or rampant anglophilia, as in The Windsor Knot. While McCrumb claims to no longer write mysteries, she still holds a place as one of the best writers, to date, of the contemporary traditional mystery.
Sick of Shadows, 1984
Lovely in Her Bones, 1985
Highland Laddie Gone, 1986
Paying the Piper, 1988
The Windsor Knot, 1990
Missing Susan, 1991
McPherson’s Lament, 1992
If I’d Killed Him When I Met Him...1995
The PMS Outlaws, 2000
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