Mystery author #47: Charlotte MacLeod

I have read 7 of MacLeod’s books so far, but I am only going to do full reviews the first book from each of her 2 series. I will also list the others with short reviews. I may do full reviews of some of them later on.

The Sarah Kelling and Max Bittersohn series:
This series deals with the adventures of Sarah Kelling (later Bittersohn) and Max Bittersohn. She is a member of one of Boston’s old blood families and starts out as a housewife and later becomes the owner of a boarding house, and Max is a private investigator who specialises in art and jewellery.

The series starts out with Sarah as the main sleuth and Max as the helper, but in the 4 books I read (in order of publication) the focus shifted gradually towards having Max as the main sleuth and Sarah as the helper. This is perhaps natural, as Max is a kind of private detective, and as a matter of fact art and/or jewellery feature in all 4 murder cases.

The books are full of funny and eccentric characters, many of whom belong to Boston’s high society and are Sarah’s relatives by blood or marriage. Being an insider in this social class, Sarah knows a lot about their secrets and scandals, and is able to find out more by knowing whom to ask, whereas Max, as an outsider, sometimes observes things about them Sara doesn’t notice, and thus they complement each other as sleuths. The stories are highly entertaining and often very funny, and in the books I read the plots are puzzle plots with twists and occasional red herrings.

I recommend reading at least the first 4 books in the order of writing, as they form a story arc dealing with how Sarah and Max meet, fall in love and finally get married.

Title: The Family Vault
Series detective: Sarah Kelling & Max Bittersohn
No. in series: 1 (of 12)
Year of publication: 1979
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Amateur & semi-pro (he’s an investigator, but of art theft, not murder)
Setting & time: Boston, USA; 1970’s

Story:
When an old Kelling family vault is opened for the burial of an eccentric old relative and the skeleton of a famous stripper, 30 years dead, is found inside, witness Sarah Kelling starts investigating and uncovers some deeply buried family secrets and story of embezzlement, blackmail and murder. Unfortunately the opening of the vault also sets off a series of murders, and Sarah may be next. Art expert Max Bittersohn helps Sarah solve part of the mystery, and always seems to be there when she needs help the most.

Review:
I loved this story. It is a puzzle plot in the grand old tradition of the golden era of the mystery novel, and delivers melodrama, humour, romance and mystery in abundance. Sarah’s eccentric old relatives add spice to the story. The reader and sleuths have equal chances of solving the mystery, with the villain cleverly hidden in plain sight. While I did have him pegged before too long, I was in doubt for much of the story and if I had been in a different thinking mode I might not have discovered his identity until Sarah did. The writing is straightforward and free of unnecessary descriptive passages, the plotting is perfect and the humour by turns subtle and laugh-out-loud funny.

Rating: A very good mystery in the old tradition. 4 stars.

Other books in the series I have read:
The Withdrawing Room: An entertaining mystery with a twist in the tail. 3 + stars.
The Palace Guard: Fun to read, but the solution was unconvincing. 2+ stars.
The Convivial Codfish: Entertaining characters but a cheap solution. 2+ stars.

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The Peter Shandy and Helen Marsh Shandy series:
This series takes place in fictional Balaclava County, named after the founder of Balaclava Agricultural College where Shandy is a professor of botany. He meets his future wife, librarian Helen March, in the first book in the series. In the three books I read in the series, Helen did not take an active part in the investigations, but in each case she unearthed important clues.

Like the other series these books also feature colourful characters, some of whom are decidedly kooky. They are also whimsical and full of unusual and funny situations.

While I do recommend beginning with book number one, I otherwise do not see a reason to read them in order of publication.

Title: Rest You Merry
No. in series: 1 (of 10)
Year of publication: 1978
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Amateurs
Setting & time: Balaclava Junction, Massachusetts, USA; 1970´s

Story:
Tired of the Christmas festivities in Balaclava Junction, professor Peter Shandy takes a Christmas cruise, but the ship breaks down and he returns after only 3 days, only to find the body of his neighbour’s wife on his living room floor. While the police and the doctor are convinced the death was an accident, Peter and the husband are not so sure, and Peter starts to investigate. But it is not until another murder is committed and the attractive new librarian at the college library discovers something interesting that the wheels really start to turn.

Review:
Some of what I wrote about the previous book may be applied to this one as well. It is funny and has colourful and interesting characters and a wonderfully twisted puzzle plot. The villain is better hidden here, but becomes rather obvious to the reader before Peter becomes certain of his identity.

Rating: An entertaining mystery with a twist in the tail. 3 + stars.

Other books in the series I have read:
The Luck Runs Out: An entertaining mystery with a far-fetched solution. 3+ stars.
Wrack and Rune: Entertaining, funny and twisty. 4+ stars.
The Corpse in Oozak’s Pond: A very good mystery, but not as funny as the previous books in the series. 3+ stars.
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Verdict: I have put all the remaining books in both series on my BookMooch wishlist. I want more of those colourful characters and funny situations!

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