Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A Holiday Getaway with Charlotte MacLeod

When holiday pressures seem overwhelming and the people with whom you spend your holidays start to wear, spending a few hours with some of Charlotte MacLeod's over-the-top characters and zany plots can help to cleanse your mental palate and recover your sense of humor and holiday spirit.

In The Family Vault, members of the illustrious but eccentric Kelling family of Boston tend to marry each other––mostly, young Sarah Kelling (née Kelling) suspects, to keep the money in the family. When Sarah––who had been educated at home like a prim Victorian lady––was orphaned, the family couldn't wait to marry her off to her devastatingly handsome fifth cousin and guardian, Alexander, who still treated her more like a beloved adolescent daughter than a wife. Her father's will had left all her assets in Alexander's hands until she turned 27, and he was to give her "whatever allowance he saw fit" until that time.

One bitter morning, Sarah waits in one of Boston's historic graveyards for her cousin Dolph and the representative of the Historical Society. Recently deceased Great-Uncle Frederick had insisted on being buried in the old family vault, unused for over a hundred years. To the surprise of all concerned, the vault holds the uncoffined body of a notorious burlesque performer named Ruby Redd, adored by several generations of Kelling men, who had disappeared 30 years earlier. The skeleton is still clad in Ruby's corset and red high-heeled boots, and its teeth inset with her trademark rubies. As one witness reminisces, "I ain't never seen anybody else struttin' down Washington Street with a grin on her puss like a row of taillights on a wet night."

This is the readers' first introduction to the disparate Kelling and Bittersohn clans. Inbred Back Bay Boston will never be the same when the cash-strapped Sarah converts her heavily-mortgaged mansion into an upscale boarding house, complete with part-time butler, Charles (a "resting" actor). The setting and characters provide endless opportunities for murderous plots and well intentioned cultural misunderstandings. While the stories are light, and rife with over-the-top characters, MacLeod doesn't hesitate to pile on the bodies in this first in a memorable series.

Peter Shandy, plant geneticist and professor at Balaclava Agricultural College in rural Massachusetts, is probably MacLeod's best-known protagonist. In Rest You Merry, bachelor Peter, who has for years resisted the pressure of the ladies of the Grand Illumination Committee to turn his house into a Christmas wonderland, finally yields with a vengeance. After hiring a service to turn his house into a tasteless extravaganza complete with waving Santas and obnoxious carols played very loudly, he escapes to a tramp steamer for a quiet holiday. When the steamer breaks down and naval rescue is required, he ruefully arrives home on Christmas night––only to discover his neighbor, head of the Illumination Committee and wife of his best friend, dead on his living-room floor.

Campus police and the sheriff believe that Jemima's death was the result of a fall from a stepladder, as she attempted to remove some of his more gaudy decorations, but Peter and her husband Tim think otherwise. The tall woman, they agreed, could easily have reached the decorations without the stepladder. And a bowl of 33 marbles, given to Peter––a compulsive counter––by a niece, had been knocked from a display shelf across the room. Only 32 marbles were recovered; where was the missing one? No one had seen Jemima for several days, but it wasn't unusual for her to flit around the neighborhood at all hours, organizing everything and everyone. Tim had been curious when she hadn't shown up Christmas morning to exchange presents, but not worried. Not until there is another death are the police willing to listen to Peter.

While MacLeod, who also wrote under the name Alisa Craig, published her last book in 1998 and died in 2005, new readers continue to stumble on her zany mysteries and improbable characters with cries of glee. Her plots are always well constructed and clues are offered for the attentive reader, but I usually miss them because I am enjoying the characters too much. Both of these series––many books long out of print––are finally available as ebooks, and have I begun to rebuild my rogues' gallery of this gentle but very humorous author's characters. Her characters make even my more exotic relations seem relatively sane and tame!

1 comment:

  1. Peri, thanks for posting about Charlotte MacLeod. I enjoyed her protagonists' unflappability amidst their flamboyant fellow characters. I haven't read any of the Alisa Craig books. Do you have any favorites?