Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Organize Your Corpses - Mary Jane Maffini

Organize Your Corpses
Mary Jane Maffini
Berkley Prime Crime


Whoever said that high school is the template for the rest of your life must have known Charlotte Adams and the residents of tiny Woodbridge, New York. Many of them left after high school, but have now returned for various reasons. For Charlotte, it’s a broken engagement and a desire to start her own business as a professional organizer. One of her first clients turns out to be Helen Henley, known to students at St. Jude’s high school as “Hellfire Henley.” Miss Henley, now seventy and retired, hires Charlotte to help her clean out and organize Henley House, a local historical landmark. The previous owner, her late cousin, was a packrat, and as a result the beautiful home is crammed with towers of newspapers and various debris. In addition to the organization, Miss Henley needs to find certain documents that her cousin may have hidden; documents that she will not explain. Undeterred, Charlotte draws up a plan of attack, pockets a retainer fee, and parts ways with Miss Henley.

That evening, Miss Henley calls Charlotte at home, demanding that Charlotte meet her at Henley House immediately. Realizing the wisdom of setting boundaries, Charlotte declines. The next morning, Charlotte arrives at Henley House to find the front door standing open. She finds Miss Henley inside, under a fallen stack of newspapers and an oak beam. Miss Henley has been dead for some time. The local detectives, led by a former friend-turned-enemy, seem to think that Charlotte must have had a hand in the murder. But, at the memorial service, it’s more than clear that there are plenty of people, many of them former students, who are not at all unhappy to see the woman dead. In order to take herself off the most-wanted list, and because she feels guilty for not meeting the woman on the night of her death, Charlotte begins her own investigation.

This is the first book in a new series. The plotting is sound, there are several interesting twists, and plenty of suspects. My problem is mainly with the secondary characters. As written, they’re virtually unlikable. They make loud, crass comments at the dead woman’s memorial service. They treat the reception as a party and act as if the murderer did the world a favor by removing someone that, to them, was simply a mean high school teacher. I’d have a lot more respect for Charlotte’s character if she had the backbone to shut them down, but she doesn’t. What she does do is travel to a mental facility to grill the elderly and addled relative of the deceased; a trip that ends about as well as you might expect. Since the family has lived in town for generations, she might have done better to access the Internet or visit a library. Not as exciting, perhaps, but more humane.

It’s quite possible that the author was attempting to draw a line of demarcation between the organization that runs Charlotte’s business and personal life, and the inevitable chaos that happens in life every day. Many readers may come away from the story with much different feelings about the secondary characters. For me, they made for difficult reading. Charlotte’s feeling that she owed something to Miss Henley, when everyone else was ready to bury her and forget her, is admirable. And despite the problems mentioned above, the mystery itself is solid. Here’s hoping that, in the future, some of the shrillness will be toned down and Charlotte can shine.

Rating: 5
May 2007
ISBN# 978-0-425-21580-7 (paperback)


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