Title: Murder by Syllabub
Series: An Ellen McKenzie Mystery #5
Author: Kathleen Delaney
Publisher: Camel Press
Genre: Cozy Mystery
From the publisher—
A ghost in Colonial dress has been wreaking havoc at an old plantation house in Virginia. The house is owned by Elizabeth Smithwood, the best friend of Ellen McKenzie’s Aunt Mary. Mary is determined to fly to the rescue, and Ellen has no choice but to leave her real estate business and new husband to accompany her. Who else will keep the old girl out of trouble? When Ellen and Aunt Mary arrive, they find that Elizabeth’s “house” comprises three sprawling buildings containing all manner of secret entrances and passages, not to mention slave cabins. But who owns what and who owned whom? After Monty-the so-called ghost and stepson of Elizabeth’s dead husband-turns up dead in Elizabeth’s house, suspicion falls on her. Especially when the cause of death is a poisoned glass of syllabub taken from a batch of the sweet, creamy after-dinner drink sitting in Elizabeth’s refrigerator. Monty had enemies to spare. Why was he roaming the old house? What was he searching for? To find the truth, Ellen and her Aunt Mary will have to do much more than rummage through stacks of old crates; they will have to expose two hundred years of grudges and vendettas. The spirits they disturb are far deadlier than the one who brought them to Virginia.
Different aspects of a book of fiction appeal to readers in varying degrees and a local setting is one that can really get me. When I found out that this entry in the Ellen McKenzie series—of which I was already a fan—is set in Colonial Williamsburg, I was immediately hooked. That lovely spot is right down the road from me, maybe an hour if I take the scenic route down Route 5 and I’ve been there many times. I’m a history junkie to start with and I feel privileged to live in a state where so much of the beginnings of our country took place.
The early plantations (many of which can be seen on the aforementioned Route 5) also appeal to me and, serendipitously, my daughter and I took a day trip just this past Saturday to tour one of them and drive around the grounds of several others. At one time or another in my lifetime, I’ve visited most of them but I never get tired of them so I was delighted to find that a fictional plantation is a central character in Murder by Syllabub. The author does a terrific job of letting the reader “feel” this plantation, Smithwood, and I had no trouble picturing in my mind where everything was happening. I really enjoyed all the authentic historical touches the author includes, such as how baking was done “back then”, as well as contemporary activities like the preservation of rare breeds.
Murder by Syllabub is a mixture of several mystery subgenres. It teeters on the edge of being a locked room mystery, it mixes police procedural with amateur sleuthing, it includes shades of historical fiction, it has a cold case as well as a current murder. There’s a strong hint of racial tension but also racial acceptance. Many would categorize this book, and the rest of the series, as cozy but I don’t really think that fits. For one thing, there is the blending of amateur and police, but I also think the settings take them out of the cozy domain, especially this one because Ellen is not finding bodies in her own small town, there isn’t a lot of humor (although there are light touches) and she doesn’t run around doing stupid things. (Don’t get me wrong, I love cozies but I just don’t think this is one.) So, I call this a traditional mystery.
Ms. Delaney has incorporated lots of characters in her story and we get to know just enough about the non-regulars to realize that any one of them MIGHT be the killer. I already am fond of Ellen, Dan and Aunt Mary but now I like some of these new folks and I hope Ellen will have a chance to see them again sometime in a future book. We also have a plethora of potential motives so it’s fair to say that red herrings are scattered around to make the reader have to do a bit of thinking, something I always appreciate. Does Cora Lee seem to be a little too defensive? Does Lt. McMann have a reason for dropping the search for Louis all those years ago? Is the shadow of slavery someone’s motive or could it be the desire to own property? Is a family name sacred enough to warrant murder or is this all about simple greed?
When things came to a head, I have to admit I was surprised. I had my suspicions but they were only partially right and, yet, the denouement made perfect sense. Once again, Ms. Delaney and Ellen have brought mystery readers a fine story. Oh, and you should try some syllabub ;-). Here’s a recipe from Ms. Delaney’s website—
Now, a little housekeeping: I did come across one historical error but I didn’t notice anything else being off. However, while other reviews of Murder by Syllabub have been really good, I have to take exception with the reviewers that think the historical period is the Civil War (Colonial Williamsburg is all about the period from the late 1600’s through much of the Revolutionary War) and I’ll point out that Colonial Williamsburg and Virginia are not in New England although that error is probably due to the reviewer’s own location. No doubt I take umbrage at these things because it’s my home state that’s involved 😉 but none of this takes away from the fact that reviewers, including me, are loving this book.
One last note: there is no reason to be afraid of starting the series with this book as you will have no need to know what has happened in previous books. This is a terrific part of the series but serves just as well as a standalone.
Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, September 2013.
An Excerpt from Murder by Syllabub
Mildred leaned back against the drain board, as if she needed it to prop her up. “Do you think he’ll be back?”
I set the dish on the drain board along with the other rinsed dishes. “You mean the murderer?”
I’d wondered the same thing. “I think it was Monty prowling around upstairs, looking for something. Why he was dressed like that, I can’t imagine, but I don’t think he found whatever it was he was looking for. The only reason I can think of for both Monty and whoever slipped him the poison to be here is they were looking for the same thing. I don’t think they found it. So, yes, I think whoever it is will be back.”
Mildred nodded. “I think so, too. That crate was no accident.” She paused before going on, her voice filled with apprehension. “You know, McMann isn’t going to buy the mysterious prowler story. He’s going to take the easy way out. Elizabeth fed Monty the poison before she left for the airport and we’re protecting her.” She sighed deeply and turned to the dishwasher. “Might as well load this. Can you hand me that bowl?”
She opened the door, pulled out the top rack and froze. “How did that get in here?”
“What’s the matter? Oh no.”
We stood, frozen, staring at the immaculately clean crystal glass, sitting on the top rack in solitary splendor.
“That’s one of the old syllabub glasses.” Mildred turned around to look at the glasses on the hutch and returned her gaze to the dishwasher. She pulled the rack out all the way but the dishwasher was empty, except for the one glass.
I’d had a close enough look at the glass next to Monty to know this was from the same set. “It’s the missing syllabub glass.”
“Missing?” Mildred’s hand went out to touch it, but she quickly withdrew. “Where are the others? Cora Lee and I packed these away years ago. There were eight of them. How did this one get in here?”
“Noah didn’t tell you?”
“That boy only tells me what he wants me to know. What was it he should have told me?”
“The set of these glasses were on the sideboard in the dining room where Monty was killed. Six of them. One was beside Monty with the remains of a sticky drink in it. That made seven. One was missing. The one the murderer used.”
We stared at each other then back into the dishwasher. “That’s got to be the missing one, right there.” Mildred took a better look. “It’s clean. Someone’s trying to frame Elizabeth.”
About the Author
Kathleen Delaney has written four previous Ellen McKenzie Real Estate mysteries, but has never before transported her characters out of California. A number of years ago she visited Colonial Williamsburg and fell in love. Long fascinated with our country’s history, especially the formation years, she knew she wanted to set a story there. Another trip with her brother and sister-in-law solidified the idea that had been rolling around in her head but she needed more information. A phone call to the nice people at Colonial Williamsburg provided her with appointments to visit the kitchen at the Payton Randolph house, where she got her first lesson in hearth cooking and a meeting with the people who manage the almost extinct animal breeds the foundation is working to preserve. A number of books purchased at the wonderful bookstore at the visitor’s center gave her the additional information she needed and the story that was to become Murder by Syllabub came into being. Kathleen lived most of her life in California but now resides in Georgia. She is close to many historical sites, which she has eagerly visited, not only as research for this book but because the east is rich in monuments to the history of our country. Luckily, her grandchildren are more than willing to accompany her on their tours of exploration. You can find Kathleen on the Web at kathleendelaney.net and delaney.camelpress.com .
Catch Up With the Author:
One lucky reader will win a print copy of
Murder by Syllabub by Kathleen Delaney
and you have two chances to enter the
drawing. For the first entry, leave a comment
here . To have a second entry, come back
tomorrow, September 24th, when Kathleen will
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The winning name will be drawn on the evening of
Thursday, September 26th. This drawing is open
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