Of corpse

Like the corpses whose untimely demises they track, detectives, it seems, come in all descriptions these days.

In Miracle Strip, a hoydenish confection of a mystery by first-time author Nancy Bartholomew, exotic dancer (and unwitting sleuth) Sierra Lavotini happens upon a mobster, dead as a tuna in the can, in her friend’s refrigerator — only seconds after mentally tsk-tsking the friend for not having wiped up after making spaghetti.

And in Simon Said, a witty but gentle outing by another first-time author, Sarah R. Shaber, history professor Simon Shaw steps in to solve the mystery of a decayed corpse uncovered by archaeologists at a historic mansion — but not before first becoming distinctly nauseous when viewing the body.

Meanwhile, the true-life case of Velma Barfield called for little detecting; questioned by police after the suspicious death of her fiance, the N.C. woman readily confessed to having poisoned him, as well as three others (including her own mother). But in Death Sentence, journalist and best-selling crime author Jerry Bledsoe himself acts as a detective of sorts, finding evidence not just of Barfield’s crimes but of the conflicted life she led as a mother and grandmother, before she gained the dubious honor, in 1984, of becoming the first woman to be executed in the United States in 20 years.

These are only three of the participants in the Southern Mystery Gathering, a convocation of authors, reviewers and agents (sponsored by the Mystery Writers of America) that’s getting under way at the Kanuga Conference Center this weekend. On the docket (so to speak) is everything a mystery writer might want to know (but was afraid to ask): from the how-tos of snagging an agent, writing a screenplay, and self-promotion to the skinny on homicide procedure and — perhaps less ghoulishly, perhaps not — the future of the small press. Bledsoe will be the keynote speaker. Plenty of time has been allotted for socializing, too — not just at meals and book signings but also at author talks and, on Saturday evening, a lakeside gathering.

So bring on your arsenic anecdotes, your Nero Wolfe tics and pronouncements, and your Miss Marple-like observations (but best to leave the Poirot-ish mustachios at home, divine as they may be). Bring on your knowledge of calibers, gunshot residue and Quantico wizardry; of faked suicides, eviscerated bones and wise feline companions; of hard-drinking New York cops and embattled female sleuths with handguns in their pocketbooks; of brilliant recluses and their clueless sidekicks. Bring on your red herrings, fingerprints and unverifiable alibis, your Professor Plums, Colonel Mustards and sneaking Miss Peacocks. And let the games begin!

Simon Said by Sarah L. Shaber

(St. Martin’s Press, 1997, available in paperback)

Sarah Shaber didn’t mean for Simon Shaw to become the hero of her first novel. Instead — in an uncharacteristically aggressive move — the faunlike professor with a penchant for Cokes and Southern history just sort of muscled his way to center stage.

Shaber’s road to publication could serve as a lesson to all would-be authors on the importance of persistence in a writer’s life. She began work on her mystery five years ago, after quitting a job in advertising and public relations (“much to my husband’s horror,” she confesses). It took two years to research, write and revise Simon Said; a year to find a publisher; and another year before she saw the book in print. Happily, however, Shaber’s manuscript was named the best first traditional mystery in St. Martin’s competitive Malice Domestic Contest, a guarantee that the book would receive a solid dose of post-publication attention.

The mystery is set at Kenan College — a small school in Raleigh whose historic holdings include a Colonial mansion once home to generations of Bloodworths, pillars of the local aristocracy. The family’s heirs having dispersed, the house has been deeded to the college, which in turn has leased the Bloodworth House to the preservation society. When the remains of a woman — her skull marked by a bullet — are found during an archaeological dig on the house grounds, Simon Shaw is called in. As the author of a historical monograph on the home, the prof is asked if he has any insight into the corpse’s identity.

Within moments of viewing the body, Simon (despite his churning stomach) has his answer, identifying it as the earthly remains of Anne Bloodworth, heiress to the estate’s sizable fortunes, whose mysterious disappearance in 1926 baffled her family and friends — and the police.

Now, some 70 years after the fact, Shaw — haunted by the idea of a woman struck down in her prime — sets out to solve her murder. And herein lies the compelling attraction of Simon Said: How does one sniff a trail long gone cold? The answer is fascinating, as the search leads Simon into the archives of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, through ribbons of microfilm and into the parlors of Raleigh’s elderly. Shaber ably captures the nuances of the period: In the ’20s, for example, it was the domain of detectives, not the police, to ferret out clues and leads.

Never mind that the likelihood of Simon’s fingering the killer is scant — as the professor meets with a series of “accidents,” it’s clear that someone is threatened by the search. Simon may be brilliant (after all, he’s the youngest full professor at his college — and a Pulitzer Prize winner, to boot ), but he’s not necessarily skilled at keeping out of — nor saving himself from — trouble.

“I wanted a character who was a real person, not a superhero,” says Shaber about her character’s vulnerability. “[Simon’s] so preoccupied with historical problems that he forgets about safety. He doesn’t even know how to shoot,” she adds appreciatively.

Her desire as an author, says Shaber, was to have her book populated by believable characters. She describes these as “not serial killers, but regular people that anybody could know,” adding, “I wanted [my book] to be a mystery that people could read and think it could happen to them.” Here Shaber treads in the footsteps of such esteemed practitioners as Dame Christie, Dorothy Sayers and Margaret Maron (also slated to attend the Southern Mystery Gathering), whose mysteries emphasize character and observation, not gore.

And readers reap the rewards — finely drawn portraits of Southern living, like this one of Simon’s secretary: “Judy was a small-town girl who wore cheap dark brown hose with white shoes and baby-doll dresses with lace collars. … She had come to Raleigh to make good money and find a new husband. She had left her ten-year-old son with her mother to simplify the process. She was almost thirty, and time was running out.” Other nice cameos include Simon’s misogynistic but loyal best friend, Anne’s former maid, and her protective granddaughter (not to mention assorted infighting academics at the college).

The weak link here is Simon’s romantic interest, Julia (ironically, Shaber’s initial choice for a protagonist), an attorney he meets through the Bloodworth case and who (sometimes) evades his romantic overtures. Far be it from me to put down a career girl in search of a bread-winning husband, but when Julia ruminates about how she wishes Simon would show more ambition, this reader could only think, “He’s got a Pulitzer Prize, for Christ’s sake! What more do you want, babe?”

Maybe readers will discover what it takes to impress Julia in the sequel to Simon Said, to be published (Shaber hopes) next year. The mystery will lead Simon to the beaches south of Wilmington, where submarines were stationed off the coast during World War II. And, yes, the author fears that, once again, her hero might be in need of saving.

The Miracle Strip by Nancy Bartholomew

(St. Martin’s Press, due out in September 1998)

If you can’t judge a book by its cover, can you critique it by its flyleaf? Because if you can, The Miracle Strip by Greensboro, N.C., author Nancy Bartholomew is a winner right off the bat. In my eyes at least, any book whose rapid-fire pacing is described on the jacket as “quicker than you can say 38 DD” must be purchased with pastie, er, haste.

Suffice it to say, this book will not be appearing soon on Asheville City Council member Tommy Sellers’ nightstand. It’s the story of Sierra Lavotini — apt name, patent-leather stilettos, 38 DDs and all — who headlines at the Tiffany Club, an “upscale” strip joint in Panama City, Fla. (Don’t let Demi Moore’s vapid performance in “Striptease” — a woefully bad cinematic take on a pretty good Carl Hiaasen novel — fool you: Mysteries starring Florida strippers can be riveting.) When the dog of her friend (and co-worker) Denise is kidnapped and held for $100,000 ransom, Lavotini is plunged into a mystery that only deepens when Denise disappears — and a dead mobster or two appears in her apartment, in her stead.

Like its heroine (and, for that matter, her doublewide trailer), this book is smarter than it looks; Sierra’s wisecracks and her “my heart is as big as my bazooms” stance make her seem not so much believable as someone you wish were. “I got the tassels on my pasties swinging so they rotated in opposite directions,” she narrates at one point, during an appearance at the club as Little Bo Peep. “An engineer told me once it was a matter of force and gravity. He said with my 38 DDs it was all momentum and propulsion. I say it’s a gift; you either got it or you don’t.”

Miracle Strip is the quintessential bubble-bath book: well-written, bawdy, light and action-packed.

In the great (but bizarre) tradition of Florida writing, the novel’s cast includes loonies, shady underworld types, motorcycle-riding pond scum … and a Chihuahua named Fluffy. Taking the cake, though, is Sierra’s neighbor Raydean, whom Sierra alternately describes as “a sweetheart, but … also batshit” and “a lost ball in high weeds.” Raydean makes her first appearance on the steps of her trailer, wearing a pink, flowered housedress and brandishing a shotgun, shielding Sierra from the menace of a motorcycle gang. A heroic act, to be sure, its bravery muddied only by Raydean’s conviction that the bikers were Flemish — a people, she believes, hell-bent on world domination.

Such is Miracle Strip’s voltage that you might never notice that the mystery at its center is less puzzling than those pondered by, say, Wolfe and Poirot. Instead, it’s the question of who Sierra can trust in the seamy, “what’s a naughty girl like you doing in a nasty place like this?” circumstances in which she finds herself that keeps the suspense flying, quicker than you can say …

Death Sentence — The True Story of Velma Barfield’s Life, Crimes and Execution by Jerry Bledsoe

(Dutton, due out in October 1998)

“What was it about his mother that drew so much tragedy, anguish and sorrow?” So Ronnie Barfield thinks to himself, as he consoles her over the death of a boyfriend. Already twice a widow, Velma seems plagued by an endless string of deaths, fires and car accidents, as if Fate had marked her for especially lousy luck.

Within a couple of years, yet another man close to Velma Barfield will die — her fiance, Stuart Taylor. After falling ill at a Sunday prayer meeting, he expires six days later, despite several trips to the hospital. His children are puzzled: Their father was only 56, hale and fit.

When an autopsy turns up traces of arsenic, Ronnie is tipped off that police scrutiny is centering on his mother. Disbelieving, he hurries to Velma’s house — only to hear the awful, whispered admission, “I only meant to make him sick.”

The author of such bestselling works as Bitter Blood and Before He Wakes, Jerry Bledsoe gives us an admirably evenhanded account of the woman who made national headlines as “the Death Row Grandmother”: All participants are allowed to tell their tale, with little editorial comment. Death Sentence traces Velma’s life back to her beginnings as the eldest daughter of a poor, rural, eastern-North Carolina family, then on through her days as a happy, young mother of two — the type who always gladly volunteers to lead classroom field trips.

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