Sunday, November 15, 2009

Mansions of the Dead by Sarah Stewart Taylor

Mansions of the Dead is the second Sweeney St. George mystery. Taylor has created an extremely unique premise for her series. The main character is an art history professor who studies funereal art. She spends significant amounts of time in cemeteries studying the gravestones.

This book, unlike the first O Artful Death, takes place in a university setting. The murder victim is a student of Sweeney's who is taking her funeral art course. He also happens to be the son of an extremely well-connected Boston family causing distinct problems for the police. The family throws up roadblocks left and right to keep their own lives private.

Taylor crafts a good story. She gives significant detail without drifting into telling facts just to show off what she knows. She inserts historical tidbits that are pertinent to the story without being too heavy-handed. Her main character is a complex person with a past and foibles that are realistic. The policeman in the story has depth and flaws without being the stereotypical useless cop. Boston is an important third character in the novel with the city's personality and quirkiness playing into the character's interactions.

Like the first book, I feel like the university setting gives the character a reason for knowing history without being the most realistic depiction of life in a university. Sweeney St. George grades an entire set of papers in a short hour span. Any professor knows how long a set of papers really takes to grade. And she seems to be able to drop in and out of class at will and drops in on student dorms without anyone so much as wondering about his professor's presence at his doorstep.

Taylor also likes to give her characters a lot of alcohol which is not unrealistic. Except that two of the characters who drank quite heavily in this book both have alcoholic parents. From what I've seen of the world (which is not comprehensive by a long shot, but still...) children of alcoholics tend to be particularly careful about what, when, and how much they drink.

Do these minor flaws destroy the story? Not in the least. I find myself engaged in the characters and the plot in Taylor's books. They are a nice addition to the world of historical, academic mysteries.

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