|Cynthia Peale: The White Crow|
(Paperback), ISBN 0440235669
Boston socialite Caroline Ames attends a sťance, hoping to contact the spirit of her departed mother. Medium Evangeline Sidgwick presides, channeling the dead through her "control," an irascible spirit called Roland. Caroline's disappointment at failing to reach her mother falls by the wayside when another member of the party falls dead. Theophilus Clay, a much-loved philanthropist, could only have been murdered by someone at the table. Thus Caroline becomes a suspect.
The third book in author Cynthia Peale's Beacon Hill Mystery series presents the continuing adventures of Caroline and her brother, Addington Ames. Well-born but living on an ever-dwindling fortune in Victorian Boston, Caroline and Addington take it upon themselves to investigate the murder and clear Caroline's name. Their boarder, retired military doctor John MacKenzie, aids and abets their efforts while subtly courting 36-year-old spinster Caroline.
"If you seek to prove that not all crows are black, you need only one white crow," says (real) eminent psychologist and scholar William James in his (fictional) appearance in The White Crow. In James' view, Mrs. Sidgwick is the white crow which proves that not all mediums are fakes. Peale uses James' well-known interest in Spiritualism to add credibility to her story.
In an age of many wonders, including a marvelous new invention, the telephone, the Spiritualists' claims of making contact with the dead seem less implausible than they might at another time. Addington Ames compares the experience of talking with a disembodied voice on the phone with hearing the voices of the dead at the sťance table. Unbelievable, yet real.
When another member of the sťance turns up dead, the case appears to be over. Insipid police inspector Crippen believes the murderer received his just reward. Then Mrs. Sidgwick's young daughter goes missing, and a face from the Ames' past reappears to haunt them. Meanwhile, as Caroline and Dr. MacKenzie struggle to find a socially appropriate way to move their relationship forward, the stuffy Addington pursues a highly inappropriate liaison with a beautiful actress. Finally, Peale brings the varied elements of the mystery to a satisfying conclusion that leaves Caroline's and Addington's love lives open for further development.
The danger in writing an historical mystery lies in the difficulty of avoiding anachronisms of scenery, behavior and thought. Peale does a spectacular job of rendering high society in Victorian times. Caroline's interests, desires, and conflicts evoke great sympathy for what seems to the modern reader to be her painfully constricted life. But Caroline does not complain; she cannot imagine her life unrestrained, and those who ignore those restraints pay a heavy price in her world. The White Crow provides a welcome trip to the turn of the last century for cozy historical mystery fans.
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