I'm not sure why I kept thinking about Agatha Christie's Miss Marple when I was reading Melody for Murder by Carolyn Marie Wilkins, whose protagonist is Bertie Bigelow. The two fictional characters are cultures and oceans apart; where Miss Marple is British, a spinster, and a tea drinker, Bertie is African American, a widow, and can put away a half bottle of rum on occasion. Miss Marple lived before computers changed the complexion of murder mysteries, and Bertie could be your next door neighbor today—if you live on the South Side of Chicago, that is.
So when, three-fourths of the way through the book, Bertie's best friend asks: "Does it look like we're living in the middle of a Miss Marple episode?" I couldn't help but giggle. And when Bertie giggled, too, "took another sip of rum" and then said, "I'm no Miss Marple," my giggle became a cackling belly laugh.
Moments like this, when I'm reading and make a connection, are when I know why books are one of the most precious treasures on earth. I found several such connections in Melody for Murder because the characters felt real, with easily identifiable strengths and flaws of the human race.
I wouldn't say Wilkins has quite the mystery puzzle touch of an Agatha Christie, but then I'm not sure any mystery writer can top the undisputed Queen of Mystery, who is the best-selling author of all time, save for the Bible and Shakespeare. Of course Wilkins is still writing, and who knows what the future holds.
In Melody for Murder, Bertie is the choir instructor at a community college who comes under fire for the actions of one of her students, then is propositioned by an old friend. Murder arrives soon after and Bertie places herself in the middle of the investigation despite being told to distance herself from it.
The fact that she then becomes a snoopy, busybody looking for clues is when I started thinking about Miss Marple, because that is what Miss Marple always was, and what she always did. But whereas Miss Marple usually did her investigating from the background, Bertie jumps in the fray with accusations that put her on somebody's kill list, reminiscent of the girl who hears a noise in the dark cellar and goes downstairs to investigate.
And we all know what happens to that girl. But then Melody for Murder is a cozy mystery and not a horror flick, so the outcome can't be that bad. Can it?
Carolyn Marie Wilkins is a Professor of Ensembles at Berklee College of Music. She has published two memoirs: They Raised Me Up: A Black Single Mother and the Women Who Inspired Her, and Damn Near White: An African American Family's Rise from Slavery to Bittersweet Success. Melody For Murder is her first mystery book, but stay tuned for more. Visit her website.
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