Uncommon Mystery - Corpus Christmas

Dec 19, 2008

Murray, KY – There's nothing like a warm Christmas corpse to chill your bones in the holiday season. That's what the artisans of the Bruel House in Grammercy Park must deal with in Margaret Maron's novel, Corpus Christmas. Commentator Michael Cohen says this artsy mystery will have you guessing until the end.

Just before Christmas, an art historian is murdered while working in the Breul House, the mansion of a rich Victorian art collector which has been turned into a small but tony art museum. The murder occurs after a party at the museum, which just happened to be attended by Margaret Maron's New York Police detective Lieutenant Sigrid Harald. She is there because she is romantically involved with a famous painter whom the museum is courting. If a retrospective of his work is shown there, the financially-strapped museum will get a big boost in attendance and donations.

This plot setup takes Margaret Maron a while to develop; in fact the murder doesn't happen until page 100, more than a third of the way through the book. But it's a rich setup in Maron's hands because she has three different stories going at once. Almost century-old details about the Breul household, the art collecting of Erich Breul, and the wanderjahre of Sophie and Erich Breul's son in Europe are told through letters and snippets of books about the house and its owners. Maron begins each chapter with one of these. The murder itself is tied up with the present life of the house as museum: its director, secretary, trustees, docents, and even the live-in janitor. And this story, because it involves the larger art world of collectors and galleries, connects with detective Harald's lover, the abstractionist painter Oscar Nauman, as Harald gradually learns as she investigates. Maybe that's four different stories. At any rate, the author has used the tried-and-true device of making the victim utterly despicable, so that not only are we happy to see him go, but he is so roundly hated that everyone has a motive. Among the suspects are the vain, incompetent director of Breul House, another curator who thinks the art in the place is all Victorian kitsch, an aging gallery owner and his attractive young partner, and a rich ship owner with plenty of his own secrets.

Corpus Christmas is the sixth in Margaret Maron's books about Sigrid Harald. She has another mystery series featuring a judge named Deborah Knott, and these books are favorites of my wife. She suspects, and I do too, that Maron probably has more female than male readers. Her detective gets the mystery solved in time for Christmas, and the solution surprised me, anyway. Merry Christmas, mystery lovers.