A Whisper of Bones by Ellen Hart is the 25th book in the Jane Lawless Mysteries series (available February 27, 2018).
In this 25th novel of the award-winning Jane Lawless series, a young woman named Britt Ickles is sure she’s being gaslit by her only surviving family members, two elderly aunts. She distinctly remembers meeting a boy her own age named Timmy when she was six years old and back in St. Paul with her mother for her grandfather’s funeral. Timmy was her cousin and the only bright spot of what was otherwise a miserable experience. On top of the funeral, there had been a big family row, and Britt’s mother, Pauline, vowed never to return to the family home.
Nearly three decades later, Britt is attending a conference in the city and decides to drop in on her aunts. The older of them, Eleanor Skarsvold Devine, is gracious, but the younger, Lena Skarsvold, is bound to a wheelchair and bitter. When Britt inquires after Timmy, the sisters tell her that no such person ever existed. Confused, Britt happens to mention this at a cocktail party to Cordelia Thorn, the best friend of private investigator and restaurateur Jane. Naturally, Cordelia puts the two women in contact.
At first, Jane is somewhat skeptical. But after Britt comes up with conclusive proof that Timmy wasn’t a figment of her imagination, Jane agrees to take on the case. As the Skarsvold sisters let out rooms in order to make ends meet, Jane takes lodgings with them and starts snooping around. When a fire breaks out in the garage and bones are found buried beneath, she thinks she might finally have a lead on Timmy. But she soon discovers that very little about the house, its inhabitants, or its visitors is as straightforward as it seems.
I really enjoyed how Ellen Hart layered the different plot threads, from the main murder mystery to the suspicious behavior of the Skarsvolds’ neighbors (Butch’s story, especially, makes for compelling reading) to the illness of Jane’s former lover and current roommate, Julia. Ms. Hart writes with a wise eye, a kind heart, and most impressively, a deep understanding of the human psyche:
If Jane had learned anything in her life, it was how evil became lodged in the human heart. It almost always started with a story, a fiction that was created out of need and then the individual worked to believe it. Over time, that fiction replaced reality. The moral center collapsed. And ultimately, in the worst instances, anything in the service of that story was permitted.
And while that’s an apt generalization regarding evil and falsehood, Ms. Hart is not afraid to tackle the narrower issue of toxic masculinity and the structures that allow it to flourish even in the most well-intentioned of souls. Eleanor’s son, Frank, is trying to save his second marriage by going to therapy, but he finds it extremely difficult to open up in his sessions—often leaving him even more frustrated than before his appointments:
As he drove away from the building, he began to muse on all the smug, overfed, swaggering demigods of his youth. His grandfather had introduced him to John Wayne. Frank had never connected with him. He seemed too old. Too ridiculous and blatant. But Bruce Willis and Clint Eastwood had been an entirely different matter. He fed at the trough of their hard-core fearlessness. While Frank feared everything in his pathetic life—spiders, taunts from fellow students, his growing girth, his mother's expectations—these men feared nothing. He wanted to be them. And he loathed them. And that was, in essence, his problem. He'd never had a straight, singular, entirely unexamined thought in his life. He lived in his head, dragging his heart behind him like a forlorn teddy bear.
A Whisper of Bones is a quietly nuanced exploration of love, guilt, and culpability as well as the push-pull of need between people who care for one another—whether they be family or lovers. It can be frightening and humorous in turn (Cordelia, in particular, is a riot, especially when she decides to go undercover herself), but above all, it’s a compassionate exploration of the human heart in all its capacity for good and evil.
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Doreen Sheridan is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. She microblogs on Twitter @dvaleris.
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