DEAR OLD DEAD
Book 10 of the
Gregor Demarkian Holiday Mysteries
Bantam, July 1994
Reviewed by Joy
Charles von Schaadt, multi-millionaire and philanthropist, has a strong interest in the Sojourner Truth Health Center, which provides free health care for citizens of Harlem who might not get care any other way. We aren't quite sure why he has descended upon the Health Center in the middle of a gang war, but he probably wants to pull Dr Michael Strong out of a series of surgeries to upbraid him for having been picked up by the police during a vice raid.
Before von Schaadt can deliver his lecture he dies of strychnine poisoning. Of course he has other arrows in his bow, and some of those might have made someone need him dead. His grandchildren hate him, for example. For starters, he has forced them to do volunteer work at Sojourner Truth, very uncongenial work for most of them. For another, he is about to change his will. In a number of ways, he is up to mischief, and von Schaadt's mischief is expensive.
The New York City Catholic Archdiocese assigns a small sprinkling of priests and nuns to work at Sojourner Truth, so its very unpleasant Cardinal Archbishop has an interest in the solution to the murder. He ropes in ex-FBI man Gregor Demarkian, who suspects the Archbishop has an ulterior motive but responds to the call anyway. Gregor couldn't have imagined the urban wasteland where he is about to serve, or the rich emotional life of the volunteers at the Sojourner Truth.
This is the strongest skill of author Jane Haddam: the invention of interesting and unusual casts of characters. Gregor Demarkian is attacking the solution of this murder from the angle of timing, but he already knows by personality who the murderer has to be. In an attempt to lead us there, Haddam places us into the viewpoints of several of the passionate, complicated characters.
Let's jump past the von Schaadt family. They are worth avoiding. Haddam has applied her enthusiastic invention to making the grandchildren of Charles von Schaadt unpleasant. This takes us to Dr Michael Strong, founder of the Sojourner Truth Health Center. Dr Strong is fireworks. A dedicated, obsessive, contradictory man, he is as fascinating to read about as his staff feel he is to work with. He disputes his reputation of sainthood at every chance he gets – and his flaws are legion – but our sympathies are engaged with Dr Strong right up to the moving last page.
Jane Haddam devised a theme on which to hang her series. Each one is set among the celebrations of a holiday. By Book Ten, the theme is getting a little stretched – not long after this she abandoned it altogether. In DEAR OLD DEAD the theme is Father's Day, but Charles van Schaadt isn't exactly a good father figure. Fortunately there are many appealing suspects and witnesses who make DEAR OLD DEAD a book to hang on to and reread.
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