RogerBW's Blog

The Family Vault, Charlotte MacLeod 16 May 2015

1980, cosy American detective fiction; first of MacLeod's novels of Sarah Kelling and Max Bittersohn. In Boston, an old family vault is opened for the first time in thirty years… to reveal the corpse of a well-known burlesque dancer.

Sarah Kelling, one of the members of that Boston Brahmin family, is the viewpoint character here: she's married to her rather older cousin Alexander, whom she adores, but their household is entirely built round looking after his deaf-and-blind mother (who still manages to be a power in local charity and political work). When Alexander hears about the corpse, he's clearly very deeply shocked, and things go downhill from there.

Structurally this is a very odd story: a murderer is unmasked less than half-way in, and several more murders happen. With a fairly limited cast it's not hard to work out who must be responsible. Sarah comes over as strangely flat at times: she's under a lot of strain and nervous exhaustion, certainly, but one does feel that she might reasonably react a little more strongly to some of the extreme revelations she encounters about people she thought she knew.

The strings show just a bit too much. Almost everyone's a bit too consciously nasty, a huge coincidence goes unremarked, and the ending is clearly a lead-in to the next in the series. (Though there is rather a good use of braille.) It's very much a book of its time or perhaps rather before it, as the others of MacLeod's I've read have tended to be, but for an old-fashioned mystery fan like me it certainly satisfies. Followed by The Withdrawing Room.

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