I can’t remember who initially told me about Charlotte MacLeod, but I remember tearing through all of her Sarah Kelling/Max Bittersohn books in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s–and even then, they were a bit hard to find. When I relocated to the East Coast, those were books I left behind and I’ve regretted it ever since. Happily, though, it appears that nearly her entire oeuvre has been issued electronically and it was with great glee I devoured The Family Vault this past weekend. (And isn’t it nice to see the Mysterious Press imprint again, too?)
It is also with great glee that I can say that this book was every bit as charming and delightful as I remembered it being.
Sadly, my summary isn’t going to be that charming or delightful.
Sarah Kelling is married to her much-older cousin, Alexander. They live with his demanding (and disabled) mother, Caroline, in the family home on Beacon Hill. Great-Uncle Frederick has just died and prior to his death, he stated his wish to be buried in the old family vault. Sarah’s been dispatched to help oversee things–as one of the most junior adult members of the family, Sarah is often overlooked and assigned the jobs no one else wants to do when they do notice her.
As they open the Kelling vault, they discover that there’s a relatively new brick wall blocking their entrance and when they knock it down, the decomposed body of a well-known stripper known as Ruby Redd is found sprawled within. Sarah’s natural curiosity gets the best of her and in between frantically doing everything for everyone around Great-Uncle Frederick’s funeral she starts investigating.
At which point more people start dying–and Sarah still investigates, this time with her new acquaintance Max Bittersohn, who is doing a book about jewelry with some Kelling family friends…or is he?
As I said, this is an utterly charming book and I found the mystery quite engaging and more than a bit twisty–but MacLeod plays fairly and elegantly with her clues. What really makes this book shine is the characters. Sarah is eminently likable and even though she comes from an extremely privileged background, she is still very relatable–even though she has a trust fund, she doesn’t have access to her money and Alexander gives her as little money as possible, so she has to make every penny count. All her various relatives are expertly delineated with just a few descriptive phrases and Sarah’s relationship with Alexander is bittersweet and a bit sad. Max Bittersohn is more of a cipher in this volume, but since his name appears on the cover, the reader should be pretty clear on the fact that he’s not a criminal, despite Sarah’s fears in that direction.
One other note about this book: it was first published in 1979 and while it isn’t tremendously dated, it is a bit creaky in places. The publication date is definitely something to keep in mind, though, because it does explain Sarah’s relative lack of education (although there is another reason for that, too) and why they’re driving a Studebaker–in the late 70’s, a Studebaker would have been an old car but not a creakingly old car as it would be today. Same for the amounts of money that Alexander doles out to her–a pittance today but not completely awful back then. That is one of my favorite tricks with some genre books: the timeless appeal of them in the hands of a really skilled writer. Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels was great with that, too. I have a feeling that all these books full of name brand electronics and designer clothes are going to be extraordinarily dated in a scant handful of years. But that is, perhaps, a topic for another post.
I’m really looking forward to re-reading all the rest of these books (except for maybe the last one which I remember as being not very good) as well as picking up the other series MacLeod wrote that I was never able to find copies of, specifically the books she wrote as Alisa Craig. I remember bouncing off the Peter Shandy series pretty hard back in the day but I’m also looking forward to giving that one another try.
She dabbles in writing speculative fiction and poetry, but non-fiction is her bread and butter. She’s known for her coverage of various issues within genre around sexism and harassment, and can be found on Twitter as @eilatan.
With Annalee Flower Horne, she is a co-founder of the intersectional geek blog, The Bias.