Book Review: Where There’s A Will by Sulari Gentill
The tenth installment of the Rowland Sinclair Mystery series finds our quartet of detecting friends summoned from a sultry Singapore to a far colder Boston, and for less than pleasant reasons. Daniel Cartwright, Rowland’s good friend from their college days in Oxford, has unexpectedly passed away. Even more unexpectedly, he appointed Rowland the executor of his considerable estate. Sculptress Edna, artist Clyde, and poet Milton decide to tag along with Rowland, in part to provide their friend with moral support but also to pay respects to a man who had previously hosted them all and treated them kindly.
Upon arrival in Boston, the four Australians discover that Daniel did not merely die but was murdered and that the terms of his will likely won’t endear its executor to any of the surviving Cartwrights. Daniel had apparently left nearly everything to someone named Otis Norcross, and left it up to Rowland to both find his heir and settle the estate according to his clear if complicated wishes. Luckily, Daniel’s lawyer, Oliver Burr, is on hand to explain the many clauses and codicils to Rowland. He also tries as much as possible to serve as a buffer between Rowland and Daniel’s siblings, including the antagonistic Geoffrey and the forlorn Molly, reiterating to them:
“But Mr. Cartwright’s will is clear. This house and all the other properties have been left to Mr. Norcross.”
“Who do you think you are, Sinclair?” Geoffrey turned on Rowland now. “Who are you to decide where we live? What we own?”
“Rowly, please!” Molly said desperately. “You can’t do this…”
“I am your brother’s representative.”
Geoffrey’s upper lip curled. “Take a care then, that you don’t meet a similar end.”
Ordinarily, Rowland would treat Geoffrey’s words as so much bluster. It soon becomes clear, however, that both Geoffrey and his brother Frank are in dire need of funds, and have known associates among Boston’s criminal element. When Rowland and his friends are threatened with physical harm, the search for the elusive Norcross takes on a greater urgency. But what if, as Molly posits, Norcross was the one who killed Daniel to begin with? Rowland and company will have to swiftly uncover the truth and bring a murderer to justice while honoring their dead friend as best they can.
This was a really terrific, historically-grounded murder mystery that sensitively explores what it meant to be different in 1930s America. I was genuinely impressed by how repulsive yet oddly sympathetic the murderer was: hateful in many respects, yet imbued with understandable desperation and rage. I also very much appreciated the way actual historical figures and events were woven into the narrative, as well as the way Sulari Gentill draws out the parallels between those times and today:
[Edna] turned on the chrome-grilled Philco radiogram. It was tuned to a national broadcast, a political address criticising Roosevelt’s New Deal, and the grasping greed of Jewish bankers, which the broadcaster claimed was preventing monetary reform and pushing the working man towards socialism.
Rowland turned off the radiogram.
“Who is this chap, Ed? I didn’t catch–”
“He’s a priest!” Edna said angrily. “A man of the cloth. Father Coughlin–he has a weekly radio show, apparently.”
“How many people are going to tune into a priest, Ed?” It was an attempt to comfort the sculptress rather than the fact he was unconcerned. “Church once a week is all most people can take.”
“Would he have a radio show if they didn’t?”
This recognition of the political climate of the 1930s is a sobering counterpoint to the glitz of Rowland’s wealthy artistic circle, as well as to the sheer escapist thrills of the murder mystery. Taken together, it all makes for a wonderfully well-rounded novel that, for series fans, also introduces several interesting twists to Rowland and Edna’s ongoing relationship. Even as a first-time reader of the series, I feel highly invested in them now, as well as in Milton and Clyde, and am looking forward to reading much more of the four’s continuing exploits.