by Laurel Flores Fantauzzo
December is a month both celebratory and difficult, ushering in the joy of holidays alongside their stress, bitter cold, warm gatherings, and the rituals of religious devotion. This month, AHMM examines a dire December centuries ago. We also look at the perils of cultic religiosity during our century and the mystery of a lavish party from children’s points of view.
In 1361, the winter is an especially grim one, carrying the lethal return of the Black Death. The Bone Fire (Stodder and Houghton, $25.95) opens with an urgent, December missive from lord Oswald de Lacy to us: “If you are reading this, then I am dead. Taken by plague.”
It’s a shrewd opening from author SD Sykes, who sets her novel during the Great Plague, a horror that took up to fifty million lives when it tore through Europe in the fourteenth century. The numbers are numbing; the sense of historical devastation is near unimaginable.
Sykes’s novel brings us the inner life of Lord de Lacy and the everyday worries and traumas he feels as he tries to protect his family from the brutal terror of the Plague. The opening chapters return us to November 1361, when de Lacy sets off on his urgent journey away from the Black Death in a horse-drawn carriage. With him is his grumpy mother, his Venetian wife Filomena, his toddler son Hugh, and Sandro, his teenaged valet. Together, the small, beleaguered party make their way to the island fortress of Eden, the stronghold of de Lacy’s dour friend, Godfrey, who has promised protection from contagion. To de Lacy’s dismay, Godfrey wears the wild-eyed certainty of religious devotion, believing that the plague is the Christian lord’s punishment for an impure world. De Lacy hesitates at joining in Godfrey’s merciless belief system.
The stakes are deadly enough. But just as Godfrey closes the castle, refusing any other entrants until the plague passes, fortress inhabitants start dying by human violence. De Lacy, a gentle skeptic who survived a dire disease of his own years before, must bring his observational logic to bear, in order to find and stop the murderer in their midst.
This is Sykes’s fourth de Lacy installment, but the novel can be read as its own compelling standalone. The first-person narrative is assured and affecting, with an eye for comic behavior under the direst of circumstances. The castle inhabitants are bored and restless, with a less-than-skilled jester; de Lacy’s mother can’t help but snipe at his wife Filomena; and Godfrey’s louche brother, Edwin, can’t spend a moment sober.
The steps of the procedural move classically, showcasing Sykes’s fine calibration of suspense, all the while offering reflections on the perils of authoritarian piety in a dangerous time. The Bone Fire is involving and affecting, steeping us in the disaster of a long-ago time. It should secure Sykes’s place as one of the most authoritative historical mystery writers of our own time.
In late 2015, just as the weather chilled in upstate New York, a teenaged boy emerged from the basement of his church with wounds so severe, doctors at first thought he had been shot. Investigators uncovered the true horror of his fatal injuries: Lucas Leonard had been beaten, as punishment, by nine leaders of his religious community, Word of Life Christian Church. Two of his assailants were his own parents. In Without a Prayer (Pegasus, $26.95), journalist Susan Ashline reconstructs the origins of the WLCC, and how its secretive, controlling characteristics metastasized into fatal violence.
Without a Prayer enters the American reading landscape at a time when true crime narratives in many mediums have their most eager audiences. The book follows many of true crime’s tropes. A glossy insert of photographs shows the site of the church’s brutality, mug shots of the criminals, and a heart-rending portrait of Lucas Leonard from the last year of his life. The book faithfully retells the crime and the trial, revealing the church’s disturbing practices.
The book also follows American true crime’s tradition of focusing on the perpetrators. Jerry Irwin, the charismatic con man who founded WLCC, and his daughter, Tiffanie Irwin, who became leader after his death, occupy the center of the book. Epigraphs from their sermons, telegraphing the abusive ethos that portended the violence in 2015, introduce each chapter. Though the book is dedicated to Lucas, Tiffanie’s is the voice that rings strongest on the page. The loyal use of transcripts from her sermons, and her verbal abuse of congregants, gives the reader a claustrophobic immersion into the church’s cultic practices. While we receive the lurid details of one church’s abusive behavior, we receive little context into the characteristics of cults, and their powerful pull on the vulnerable individuals they manipulate.
A contrite Bruce Leonard, Lucas’s father, provides an italicized postscript at the end of the book, giving readers his own personal warnings about cults and controlling environments. But this reader was left ambivalent about the book’s meticulous immortalization of the voices of the perpetrators, who leave a far greater impression than the lost boy to whom the book was dedicated.
While some mysteries maximize each event, some books are equally appealing for what they withhold. Party: A Mystery (Akashic, $17.95) follows a group of three little girls in Brooklyn, New York, who dart around a party dedicated to the famous young detective, Nancy Drew. After sneaking in, the children notice some remarkable clues to a mystery of their own.
Jamaica Kincaid, the Antiguan American writer best known for her postcolonial essays and fiction, first wrote “Party” as a column for the New Yorker’s famous “Talk of the Town” section. Here, as with her original essay, she offers spare narration, with the children’s curiosity and wonder guiding their eager voices. Illustrator Ricardo Cortés provides lush illustrations, the beautiful, stately grays of the party venue contrasting with the children’s bright, wide-eyed wonder, and the vibrant colors of the guests and their fancy attire. The book’s effervescent pictures, and its playful, secretive ending, will have young readers paging through it again and again, constructing stories and observations of their own. Party: A Mystery is an ideal gift for young readers. The book will put kids’ curiosity to work during a busy holiday season.