Hallowed Murder by Ellen Hart

From the back cover:
The police call Allison’s drowning a suicide, but her housemates at her University of Minnesota sorority insist it was murder. That’s when alumnae advisor Jane Lawless steps in to find out the truth.

Abetted by her irrepressible sidekick Cordelia, Jane searches for clues, and what she finds is as chilling as the Minnesota winter—for in those icy drifts, at a lonely vacation house, she risks everything to ensnare a cunning killer…

Minneapolis restaurateur Jane Lawless has volunteered to serve as an alumnae advisor for her former sorrority, Kappa Alpha Sigma. One morning, while out exercising with her reluctant friend, Cordelia Thorn, Jane discovers the body of one of the girls, Allison Lord. When the local police are quick to dismiss Allison’s death as suicide (which they attribute to confusion over her sexuality), Jane decides to do a little investigating of her own, eventually concluding that she’ll need to set herself up as bait to catch the killer.

I didn’t outright dislike Hallowed Murder, but it does have some major problems. Most significant is the fact that the culprit is not a surprise, thanks to a brief opening chapter that reveals their motive. Other aspects of the mystery are less transparent, though, and Hart at least managed to make me briefly suspect other characters. Speaking of the characters…. Jane is okay, and I like the aura of sadness that clings to her after the death of her long-time partner, Christine, but her friend Cordelia seems to have just one mode—obnoxious. Jane’s brother makes a couple brief appearances, but he is utterly insubstantial. Then there are the victim’s three closest friends, one of whom we scarcely meet before she apparently drops out of the sorority off-camera. Again, it’s not exactly bad, but it’s all quite superficial.

The same can be said of Hart’s writing style. As I look now at the quotes I jotted down, they don’t look so objectionable, but while I was reading they were jarringly simplistic. Too much tell, not enough show. Here are a couple of examples:

The early morning mist had settled around the base of the old bridge, making it appear to float above the water. It looked like a stage set. A perfect setting for a murder. Cordelia shuddered at her own morbidity.

Jane looked around at the young man taking notes. She had never been interrogated by the police before and did not like her words being cast in stone on some stenographer’s pad.

That second one could’ve been “Jane looked uneasily at the young man taking notes,” and it would’ve communicated all of that without seeming so… prim. This was a common problem, with dialogue and character thoughts frequently coming across as stiff and unnatural. Characters were also exceedingly forthcoming with their prejudices. Now, true, this was published in 1989, so perhaps open homophobia was more common, but characters with these opinions don’t even try to disguise them, and generally have no other positive attributes that would make them more three-dimensional—they’re just being used as ignorant mouthpieces. Here’s a quote from Susan Julian, another sorority advisor, after she learns about Allison’s sexual preference:

Having allowed a—I even hate to say the word—lesbian in our midst would destroy our reputation. We can only hope it doesn’t make the papers. I mean, no one would feel safe joining.

I haven’t yet decided whether to read Vital Lies, the second Jane Lawless mystery. The excerpt included in the back of my paperback was not very promising, but some mystery writers do improve over time. And, of course, Hart earns bonus points for managing to mention both Richard III and Doctor Who.


Hallowed Murder (Ellen Hart)

The Plot
Minneapolis Restaurateur Jane Lawless is not a detective and has no aspirations to become so. And yet she can’t agree with the police department’s blithe dismissal of college student Allison Lord’s death as a suicide — she knew the girl slightly, and moreover, she found the body. She feels obligated to investigate, and as an alumna of Ally’s sorority, she’s perfectly poised to do so. She soon discovers the situation is about as clear as mud; Ally’s girlfriend, her ex-boyfriend, her strange brother and a host of other interested parties seem like they may have had at least some motive for murder, but no one person stands out. Eventually Jane realizes she may need to put herself out as bait in order to flush out the killer.

My Thoughts
Except for special reasons, we typically disqualify a book from Tripletake consideration if one of us has already read it. In the case of Ellen Hart’s Hallowed Murder, the first book in the Jane Lawless series, the one who had already read it was I. I picked it up ten years ago at the same time as a few other books featuring LGBT characters (as I can see from the amazon order) and my book list from that time indicates I read it. However, all I could remember about the plot was that the sleuth was a lesbian restaurant owner from Minneapolis – so reading it again would be practically as good as reading it for the first time.

The book opens with Jane and her friend Cordelia out for a brisk morning walk around one of Minneapolis’s lakes. (I lived very near the location of this opening scene and reading it brought back feelings of guilt for having not taken full advantage of living in the Twin Cities for two years.) Jane’s two dogs are attracted by something in the frigid water and when she goes to retrieve them, she discovers the body of Allison Lord, a senior at UMN and a current member of Jane’s sorority. There’s nothing to indicate foul play and the death is soon classified as a suicide/accident and the police are prepared to close the case. This does not sit well with Jane or with Allison’s friends, and Jane begins to do a bit of nosing around.

It comes out (ha ha) almost immediately that Allison, after some years of attempting to deny it, has recently accepted that she’s a lesbian. She’d been involved with a young grad student by the name of Emily and had been cut off by her father who couldn’t accept her sexuality. As Jane continues to question the people around Allison, it seems like almost everyone is hiding something that could be relevant. Allison’s friends at the sorority house have been party to covering up some thefts and peeping-tom incidents; Allison’s ex-boyfriend was meeting with her the night of her death for reasons unknown; the ex’s new girlfriend may be lying to give him an alibi; the born-again Christian sorority board member who is loud in her insistence that homosexuality is a sin has a very weak explanation for where she was at the time of the death.

In the end, Jane manages to mostly untangle the irrelevant information from the relevant and sets a trap to lure out the killer with the assistance of Cordelia and some other unexpected sidekicks.

Going into the book, I had forgotten how long ago it had been published — 1989! — and as it would probably have been written a year or two before it was published, we’re talking about 25 years ago. Which isn’t so very long, except that in that time period a great deal has changed, both technologically and socially. Though maybe not as much as one would hope. The mechanics of the crimes and the actual events of the book would need considerable retooling to match today’s technology and cultural mores. But I think the central seed of the plot is still viable even now. The idea that a sorority girl might feel the need to stay closeted? Depends a bit on the sorority and the location and nature of the college, but that’s definitely possible. That a Bible-obsessed fundamentalist might feel the inclination to go out and begin casting some stones? Very believable. Realistic even.

The mystery here does have a number of weaknesses. I’m not 100% positive this was Hart’s first book, but it definitely feels like the work of someone without a lot of experience. The writing and characterization is uneven, and there are several places where characters who seemed like they ought to be important just disappeared or weren’t involved. For instance, at the very start of the book we’re told that Allison was close friends with three other girls: Sigrid, Maggie and Kari. The four of them were close friends who apparently did everything together, including filling the important officer positions at the sorority. And yet Kari, the fourth girl, completely disappears from the story after she’s established as one of Allison’s best friends. We don’t even discover where she’s gone until well into the second half of the book where we find she’s fled the sorority house (and apparently resigned and quit?). But neither of her remaining ‘best friends’ finds this anything worth talking about or mentions attempting to visit her. Maggie and Sigrid fare better, getting significant page-time, but their interactions make it difficult to feel as if they’re really friends. They come off more as casual acquaintances.

There’s also the question of why Jane Lawless, a not-quite-closeted lesbian herself, was a member of this seemingly reactionary sorority during her time at school. At least here the incongruity is mentioned in character — by Jane’s still incredulous friend Cordelia — but I wasn’t satisfied by the response. And how did she manage to remain friends with Cordelia, an outspoken activist type if I’ve ever seen one, and still keep her own secret under wraps to everyone else? Perhaps these questions are answered later in the series, but here we’re just supposed to accept that the past happened as described and move on. Fine, but I do want my backstory to make sense.

But in spite of these weaknesses, the story was certainly no worse than the plethora of gimmicky crafter/orchard owner/bookstore owner/knitter/cat lover/librarian/reporter/party planner/cupcake baker/cookie baker/ice cream shop owner-solves-a-murder series that have been churned out over the past few years, and quite a bit better than many. Even if the premise can be boilt down to restaurateur-solves-a-murder, at least we have the pioneering fact that Jane is not straight and a well-drawn portrait of the Twin Cities to lend it additional interest.

In Short
Though the actual events of this 20 year old mystery are beginning to be dated, the plot central to Hallowed Murder is still very relevant to today: the risks and rewards of coming out of the closet and the sometimes surprising reactions of people to the news. This is the first of a series which features the Minneapolis restaurant-owner Jane Lawless as the investigator and even though the book is not unflawed, it still presents Jane as a character I’m willing to read more about. And that really must be the main goal of any series.