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THE SECRET STAIRCASE
by Sheila Connolly
Minotaur Books, July 2021
304 pages
$26.99
ISBN: 1250135907


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Kate Hamilton steps outside her comfort zone when she takes on the renovation and restoration of an historical Victorian home in Asheboro, Maryland. It's bad enough finding a mummified body behind a wall in the kitchen, but then, a much more contemporary corpse is found in the basement.

Kate has done well for herself so far, doing renovations and/or remodels of larger hotels and convention-type buildings. When she falls in love with the century-old Barton Manor on the outskirts of Asheboro, Maryland, she is determined that bringing this lovely old house back into the glory it once had will be the spearhead for doing the same to the downtown area. Suburban Maryland needs another town with historical depth as well as the possibility for tourist dollars, right?

She has managed to convince enough of the locals to help, and has a decent-sized funding source in a local utility company. Now she just has to find people who can do the kind of work she needs to have done; electricians, plumbers, plasterers, and the like. She wants people who can do the work with historical accuracy, not just getting things up to code. Kate has her work cut out for her.

During the interview process, one of the applicants uses a very contemporary tool to look behind a wall without being too invasive. In the process, he discovers the mummified body of an unidentified male. Kate, being the reputable citizen that she is, calls the police. This jams her up in terms of getting started on the renovation project. Her board gets antsy, the contractors get antsy, and Kate just keeps coming up with more items for her "to-do" list.

Research into the family is very high on that list. And then, just when things are getting back on track, one of the plumbing contractors is found dead in the basement. What else can possibly go wrong? This death, again, results in delays for the big project and more research into the history of the house. Is that where the answers lie? Or are the two deaths totally unconnected?

Connolly has been writing for a long time. She has written over thirty mysteries. Four series bear her name. This is the third in the Victorian Village series. Kate is not what one expects in a major character in this type of mystery. She dithers a lot. She doesn't seem to have done the necessary homework for someone attempting a Victorian restoration. Her lack of attention to details (security, for instance) is alarming. Finding craftsmen, which is really what she wants, in the Baltimore area can't be all that difficult and restoration work seems plentiful enough for there to be good people available. Other than that, Connolly's characters are real enough.

The historical aspect of the plot is good, as are the more up-to-date goings-on. Setting is important for the structure of the book; nothing jars in that aspect. It is unfortunate for long-time readers of Ms. Connolly that there will be no more Victorian Village mysteries. She passed away in 2020. She will be missed.

PJ Coldren has been reading and reviewing mystery fiction for over a quarter of a century and reads broadly within just about all genres and sub-genres. She lives in Northern lower Michigan with her spousal unit, one large cat, and two fairly small dogs.

Reviewed by PJ Coldren, July 2021

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