Book Review: The Ghost and the Haunted Portrait by Cleo Coyle

The Ghost and the Haunted Portrait by Cleo Coyle is the seventh book in the Haunted Bookshop Mystery series, where bookshop owner Penelope Thornton-McClure and her gumshoe ghost team up to solve the stunning mystery at the heart of a madwoman’s self-portrait.

Penelope Thornton-McClure is thrilled to be picking up a shipment of original cover art from collector Walt Waverly for her bookstore’s upcoming exhibit. Centered on an art book celebrating the history of American book covers, the launch party will feature Walt’s extensive collection, which he’s only too happy to append price tags to should any curious attendees want to take pieces home.

What she’s less thrilled by is the nonstop bickering of the men accompanying her on her road trip. Her two best friends, local Jeopardy! champion and mailman Seymour Tarnish and literature professor J. Brainert Parker, are also each other’s best frenemies, and neither could resist the chance to see Walt’s collection for themselves. But it’s a piece of non-book-related art on display that really strikes a chord, especially in Seymour. Depicting Harriet McClure, a distant relative of Pen’s by marriage as well as a local recluse well-known for her many self-portraits, this one stands out for being a rare picture of Harriet in her youth.

Brainert scoffs at the provenance of the painting due to peculiar elements inconsistent with Harriet’s later oeuvre, but Seymour insists not only on buying the portrait—despite Walt’s claims that it’s haunted and possibly cursed—but on pointing out to Brainert why he believes it’s not only authentic but important.

Second. You obviously need to wear your glasses because I noticed those peculiar elements before we hauled the painting down. And you know what? They don’t bother me in the least. Plenty of painters have put codes on their canvases—even your precious Caravaggio snuck a picture of himself into his Bacchus masterwork. In Harriet’s case, this is an early painting, maybe her very first self-portrait, and it’s clear to me she’s desperate to communicate something. What it is, I don’t know yet. But I feel as if she wants me to find out. That she’s chosen me.”

Pen is happy to humor him as long as she gets her art back to the store, but when Walt is found dead the very next morning and Seymour is subsequently attacked in his own home, the friends start to wonder if the painting is indeed cursed. Walt had mentioned something about another buyer, but who could possibly care enough about an obscure old painting to kill for it? Unlikely as it seems, could the painting really be haunted by a vengeful, violent ghost?

Pen is pretty sure it isn’t the latter, since she has a little experience with being haunted herself. The ghost of dead 1940s gumshoe Jack Shepard has been tethered to the mortal realm since his untimely death and has been amusing himself in his afterlife by helping Pen solve crimes. If, that is, one assumes that Jack is a real phenomenon. Not even Pen is sure:

On the other hand, there was a possibility that Jack wasn’t real at all. That he was no more than a figment of my fervent reader’s imagination.

 

Any therapist would say as much. “Jack is a syndrome,” they’d proclaim. The gruff, masculine voice in my head was an alter ego, my way of coping with the stresses of modern living. This hard-boiled “ghost” was merely a distillation of all the colorful characters I’d grown up reading about in my father’s library, the kind of spirited soul who was brave enough to speak the blunt or off-color thoughts that I was too polite to think, let alone permit myself to say.

Imaginary or otherwise, Jack’s assistance is invaluable in solving not only the case of the haunted portrait but also a different case involving a model featured on another work in Walt’s collection. Both mysteries are fleshed out wonderfully, and seeing how they fit together in the end is extremely satisfying, doing justice to both cases and to the wronged woman at the heart of each.

Cleo Coyle has written another knockout cozy-noir hybrid that’s sure to satisfy fans of this terrific series while also serving as an accessible jumping-on point for newcomers like me. I’ve loved their Coffeehouse Mystery series for a while now, and I am so glad to have discovered an entire other series of theirs to add to my list of books I can look forward to reading!

Check out Doreen’s Cooking the Books feature of Cleo Coyle’s Brewed Awakening!

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