Testing your inner Miss Marple

Mary Higgins Clark is one of the most successful writers working. At the age of 84, she is still working and is one of Simon and Schuster’s sure bets when it comes to writing books that will sell. She is every writer’s dream.

Her most recent novel, The Lost Years (Simon & Schuster, 2012) was a little hard to get excited about at first, but the more I read the more I found myself enjoying it.

The plot revolves around the murder of a 70 year old archeologist and biblical scholar named Jonathan Lyons, who recently discovered a scroll that may well have been a letter written by Jesus Christ to Joseph of Arimethea. Joseph of Arimethea, you may recall, was the man who allowed Jesus to be buried in his tomb, and who—according to Clark’s storyline—met Jesus when he was a young boy teaching in the temple. When Jonathan’s daughter Mariah—from whom he had been estranged since she discovered he was having an affair with a younger woman—discovers her father dead, she finds her mother, Kathleen, cowering in a closet with a gun in her hand babbling about so much blood. Her mother suffers from Alzheimer’s, and the circumstances aren’t encouraging. Did mom flip out, angry as she was over her husband’s affair, and in a lucid moment blow her husband’s brains out? The cops sure think so. And mom’s looney behavior following the murder doesn’t do much to allay suspicion.

And what of the scroll? Where is it? Mariah soon begins to wonder whether the scroll—which long ago disappeared from the the Vatican library—might be tempting to someone who knew how to find a buyer on the black market. But for the time being, mom is the most likely suspect. Mariah knows better.

There are other possible suspects. Four men, all friends of Jonathan’s with some expertise in the field of archeology, may present with excellent motives. Then there’s mom’s caregiver who, as it turns out, has a criminal record. And as it turns out, Jonathan’s mistress Lily (younger by a score of years) is no saint either. Money is, after all, the root of all evil.

Enter Alvirah and Willy Meehan—the couple who figured on Clark’s The Lottery Winner (Simon & Schuster, 1996)—close friends of the Lyons families. Alvirah is to Clark as Miss Marple was to Agatha Christie, a busybody with a good heart who just can’t stay out of the inquiry into what really happened to their friend. Willy is her indulgent husband who puts up with her eccentricities even to the point of missing the crucial last plays in his favorite televised football games. He doesn’t want to lend the impression that he doesn’t listen to her! He is the perfect understanding husband. As the story progresses, it is incredible to see how cops pander to Alvirah’s whims and suspicions, frequently taking their cues from her and never chewing her out for following suspects around the city to flesh out on her hunches. But as you would expect, she is generally right on target with her deductions.

Mary Higgins Clark: One of the most successful and prolific suspense writers in the business, and with good reason. Source – Mary Higgins Clark’s Web Site

Crime fiction has taken an ugly turn since the 1980s, ever since serial killers became the vogue. The horror and gore that has filled so many novels since then, augmented by a fascination with forensic analysis, has steeped the mystery reader in the horrific so successfully that it takes a while to accustom oneself to a murder mystery that is filled with classy and impeccably civil suspects and victims. A cup of tea is a sine qua non as they ponder the complexities of the case. Most live in the better places in New Jersey or Manhattan, and are people of substance and style. They shop at Bergdorf and have their hair colored by Dale of London.

They are polite and well spoken. One character, when being questioned by the police, states, “After a busy day at my office, I was content to eat quietly by myself, and to forestall your next question, I was alone in my apartment all night.” Another – the killer—later kidnaps Lilly and Mariah, ties them up and takes them to a warehouse. Before he leaves them, he unties them and allows them to go to the bathroom. Then he ties them up again.  What a gentleman.

How many suspects in recent serial killer / forensics analysis novels would even know what “forestall” was – unless it was the first stall in a barn where a racehorse could be found. And when do you remember a killer allowing a woman who was tied up to use the bathroom? In Clark’s world, even the felons are class acts.

There is one thing that bothered me. Clark is an artful plotter, but somehow the linchpin in the whole story—the supposed letter Jesus wrote to Joseph of Arimethea—seems to have precious little significance other than as a motive for murder. We are told at one point that “the entire world would be mesmerized to see this,” but somehow that doesn’t get the juices flowing. When Mariah discloses its existence to Alvirah Meehan, it’s almost as an afterthought. Later, there is a salacious tidbit thrown out about the letter containing DNA (after two thousand years?), and the DNA confirms a doctrine of Clark’s vaunted Roman Catholicism in an intriguing genetic way. But then that gets dropped. Its ultimate disposition is disclosed in the wrap-up, but it just doesn’t seem to have been worth all of the trouble—let alone all of the felonious and oh-so-impolite behavior. It is merely a plot device. Even the purported content of the letter seems innocuous. “Dear Joe, Thanks for being such a good friend,” or words to that effect.  Curious? Maybe. But it’s hardly mesmerizing.

That aside, this is a relaxing mystery that will fill your evenings nicely. It is reminiscent of Agatha Christie in its polite and urbane milieu. It is artfully plotted: almost too artfully. It’s not the best book I have read, nor—I suspect—the most memorable; but it’s a good way to challenge your inner Miss Marple.

Raring (2/5)

Copyright Isaac Morris 2012

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