Carol Goodman’s mysteries always march to a different beat. The murder is usually shrouded in decades or more of history, hidden in folktales or wrapped in uncertain family legacies. The detective, always a female, is usually more likely to carry art or writing supplies than a gun, and never sets out to solve a crime. She usually only hopes to shed light on some arcane and overlooked area of art or literature, like stained glass, the subject of The Drowning Tree, or folklore and fairytales, like her newest, Arcadia Falls.
In Arcadia Falls, Meg Rosenthal accepts a teaching position at the Arcadia Falls boarding school, primarily a school for the arts, when her husband dies unexpectedly and leaves her with more liabilities than assets. Meg and her teenage daughter, Sally, move into a cottage on the grounds of the school that once housed the school’s benefactor, Vera Beech, and her companion, Lily Eberhardt. On the night before the first day of school, one of the brightest students falls off a cliff and dies in the midst of an annual school rite. On the same night, Meg finds Lily Eberhardt’s lost journal, hidden in a secret compartment in the cottage. When she begins to read Lily’s story, she finds that the death of the student is intertwined with the mystery of Lily’s own death decades before.
Goodman is a master story teller, weaving several narratives into own whole. She’s also a wonderful writer, brushing the story onto the pages with a richness more commonly found in literary efforts. The result is a complex and satisfying read, compelling in a page-turning sort of way, while still firmly grounded in the classical world.
The principal weakness of the story is Goodman’s need to answer all of the questions before the last page and reward the heroine for her courage and persistence. The more I read, the more I appreciate ambiguity and realism. Life never answers all of the questions and rarely rewards the deserving in the way that most modern-day fiction does in the last fifty pages of a book. The stories that are most compelling to me are the ones that don’t have happy endings and don’t have the Agatha Christie Hercule Poirot reveal to uncover the murderer.
The first three quarters of Goodman’s book are ambiguous and dark, in the way that most of our lives are. The characters are never laid bare and their actions don’t always make perfect sense. But in the last fifty pages or so, Goodman contorts the narrative to the point of breaking in an effort to put everything in order. Messy seems better, more interesting.
Arcadia Falls is a good story and a good read, even if it’s a bit too orderly in the end.
Mac M., aka blackdogbooks on Librarything, lives in the American Southwest and works in law enforcement.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Ballantine Books. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.