A Christmas murder mystery

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(Host) Today Commentator Philip Baruth recommends a Christmas murder mystery by Hartland author Sarah Stewart Taylor a very witty, very deadly mystery called “O’ Artful Death.”

(Baruth) Sometimes it seems like being a writer is defined by what you don’t know and how much money you don’t make and the millions of things for which you’re just absolutely worthless. No one, during the entire stretch of my life, has ever asked my advice on stocks or mutual funds. When my buddies from high school are in trouble with the law, they make their one phone call not to me but to my friend Wayne who’s a lawyer in Boston.

But every once in a very great while, a writer can actually help. The other morning I get this call from a friend who’s an accountant the guy I call when I’m panicked about my taxes and he’s panicked because he’s about to get on a plane and he has no idea what book to buy. He’s terrified that he’ll have nothing but Attache magazine and his own bleak thoughts for comfort all the way to Chicago.

Fortunately I’d just read the perfect book for him, a witty holiday murder mystery by a writer from Hartland named Sarah Stewart Taylor. The book is called “O’ Artful Death,” and it’s a very deliberate modern recasting of the classic English murder mystery. Taylor’s heroine is a relatively young and relatively ravashing art historian named Sweeney St. George, and Sweeney specializes in “the Iconography of Death” the history and the language of gravestone poems and images. As the novel opens, Sweeney is puzzling over a gravestone from the 1890’s, a striking but mysterious stone that marks the grave of a woman who drowned or who as in any good mystery may have been murdered.
Sweeney can’t resist, and she follows the trail to a small fictional artist’s colony in Southern Vermont called Byzantium. That’s where the novel hits its stride: the multi-layered portrait of the artists of Byzantium manages to elevate the story beyond the Colonel-Mustard-with-the-lampstick level, the level of bare murder; instead the novel becomes an extended meditation on the powers of art, and the rights and responsibilities of the artists themselves.

At one point, Sweeney fears that the dead woman from the 1890’s may have died posing nude in a bathtub of ice water, to satisfy the artistic whim of a painter obsessed with death and morbidity.

It is only one of many moments in which Taylor presents the horrific hidden face of the artist, but the beautiful thing is that such moments float in and out of a Vermont found only in dreams. Christmas in Byzantium is not merely Christmas, but an artist’s painting of Christmas come to life, with a great tree felled in the forest and a profusion of warmth and light and exquisite gifts.

In such an idealized setting, murder is more than murder; it’s a reminder that perfection here on earth is always an illusion built on something far more disquieting. And I highly recommend that bit of disquiet to you this holiday season, as well as the wit and the thrilling mystery in which “O’ Artful Death” comes wrapped.

Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont. His latest novel is “The X President.”

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