The Haunting Ballad by Michael Nethercott is the second supernatural mystery featuring the mismatched crime-solving duo of O'Nelligan and Plunkett (available September 30, 2014).
The second book in the O’Nelligan and Plunkett series is another well-crafted meditation on love (this time primarily romantic) and tragedy wrapped in a period murder mystery. Set in 1950s Connecticut and New York, we follow the somewhat hapless private investigator Lee Plunkett as he and his fiancee of three years explore, with varying degrees of interest, the bohemian scene of Greenwich Village. At a club named Mercutio, an uncomfortable Plunkett and a more enthusiastic Audrey, along with two of her friends, watch the act of a handsome young folk singer named Byron Spires:
Then, to seal the deal, he slid into a mournful ballad, which I have to admit was downright haunting. Phrases like the wind that stirred our wounded dreams and she was the girl I should have loved were I not so young and lost seemed to linger after Spires had strummed his last chord. His set finished, he took in the blend of applause and finger-snapping (a modern form of admiration, I was told), muttered a thanks, and sauntered off the stage.
Scanning the crowd, he seemed to take fast notice of our table, stocked as it was with its trio of comely females. My manly presence was seemingly no deterrent, and Byron Spires, guitar slung to his side, made his way to us directly. Three pairs of eyes widened at his approach. Mine—the only non-female set—narrowed behind the twin shields of my spectacles. Right off the bat, I wasn’t sure that I really loved this guy.
To Plunkett’s dismay, Audrey soon succumbs to the allure of Greenwich Village and, potentially, of Spires. When Plunkett is contacted to investigate the seeming suicide of a local songcatcher—someone who collects folk songs for scholarly purposes—who had a very public dust-up with Spires, he’s initially reluctant due to the tangled state of his emotions. It’s his partner, the older Irishman O’Nelligan, who convinces him to take the case. As Plunkett navigates this alien world of singers, artists and impresarios, he encounters heartache… but not as much as when the truth of a songcatcher’s death is finally revealed.
The Haunting Ballad beautifully captures the very specific milieu of folk singers and bohemians in mid-20th century New York City, adding a little frisson of mysticism with a “ghost chanter,” a medium who channels the music of the dead, among other memorable characters. Michael Nethercott expertly juxtaposes his sensitive explorations of love and identity with light-hearted patter and bravado, interspersed with the occasional sharp flare of danger.
And then there is the wonderful O’Nelligan, the real brains of the story, and much of its heart. This next passage, where he quotes Yeats, perfectly encapsulates the philosophy of The Haunting Ballad. Ostensibly about the allure of song throughout history, it could just as easily be describing tales such as itself:
Mr O’Nelligan nodded. “[…] Without question, much tragedy has arisen from the human heart.”
Audrey turned to him. “What was that Yeats poem you quoted yesterday? The one about the heart longing?”
“It’s actually not a poem,” our Irishman answered. “It’s a bit of prose from The Celtic Twilight, his book of folktales and faery legends. The full lines are this: ‘Let us go forth, the tellers of tales, and seize whatever prey the heart long for, and have no fear. Everything exists, everything is true, and the earth is only a little dust under our feet.”
Audrey smiled to herself. “I like that. It’s kind of lovely and kind of frightening.”
“As is the world around us,” said Mr O’Nelligan. “Lovely and frightening and worthy of our best songs.”
Much as a pretty song often proves, if you listen carefully, to hide greater insights into life and the world at large, The Haunting Ballad is only ostensibly about a small-town private investigator and a mysterious death. The most important part of the book, I thought, was how Michael Nethercott presented Lee and Audrey’s relationship, and their feelings about each other and themselves. The characterizations and concerns felt so genuine and real, illustrating the times and gender roles in a way that transcended them, making the themes feel universal. That’s a hard task for any book, and it is to The Haunting Ballad’s credit that it accomplishes this with panache whilst also being a solid mystery and period piece.
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Doreen Sheridan is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. She
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