A poet writing a posthumous biography of a horror-novelist colleague gets caught up in an investigation of bones found buried on the author’s property in Handy’s (Spy Car and Other Poems, 2016, etc.) thriller.
Maria Pell seems a good choice to write the biography of the recently deceased Edwina Frost, the “Queen of Horror Fiction.” She and Edwina both taught at the same university, and Edwina’s nephew, U.S. Senate hopeful Hugh Bentley, feels that Maria will be more sympathetic than others who might be looking for dirt. Around the same time, authorities find skeletal remains of a 1-year-old boy on Edwina’s land. The boy’s body had been in the ground for half a century, and his head trauma suggests murder. Maria, who’s communed with dead poets before, believes that Edwina’s spirit may be aggressively trying to reach her. Maria reads Edwina’s unfinished manuscript, but it doesn’t get her mind off the dead boy, especially when she considers the possibility that Edwina or her despised sister, Louise, had a secret child. There are plenty of other things to make Maria anxious, as well, such as an anonymous caller warning her not to delve into the writer’s life, and her feeling that someone (or something) is with her in Edwina’s house. But one threat lies closer to home: Maria is certain her lover, Mathieu, is having an affair with coquettish neighbor Sybi. Overall, Handy’s novella is more mystery than horror. The author smartly keeps the existence of Edwina’s spirit predominantly ambiguous; as a result, readers will think that there’s a good chance she’s only in Maria’s head. Edwina, in fact, seems more like a manifestation of negative feelings, from her own animosity toward her sister to Maria’s envy of the younger Sybi. Mystery abounds regarding the boy’s identity and that of his killer, which Maria ultimately unravels. The status of Mathieu’s fidelity, too, is unknown until the end, and Maria’s perspective on it will earn readers’ sympathy, even when she eavesdrops on him. She becomes more unhinged as the story continues; Handy doesn’t make it easy for readers, who will wonder whether Maria is possessed by the need to find Edwina’s truth, by a vengeful spirit, or perhaps by both.
A mystery novel with a sympathetic protagonist whose apparent descent into madness makes her no less riveting.