Fiction: “A Great Day for the Deadly” by Jane Haddam

great dayI  went on vacation earlier this month. The best part of vacations that include cross-country plane trips? I can totally read three books in a week, which is unheard of in what I like to call ‘normal time.’

I began my vacation by finishing the fifth book in one of my favorite series, the Gregor Demarkian Holiday series by Jane Haddam. Gregor is an Armenian-American retired FBI agent who helped create the Bureau’s Behavioral Sciences Department (which sounds like a precursor or a synonym for Criminal Minds‘s BAU). He lives on Cavanaugh Street in Philadelphia, and in almost every other novel in the series, that plays a role as a B-plot for Gregor – as it’s his childhood home that has lately seen a resurgence, his crazy neighbors are actually friends he went to school with, and his interactions with them are very rounded and sweet. In this novel, however (with the sole exception of the Epilogue), Gregor is working a case by himself outside of Philadelphia with little interaction with his friends.

As a retired FBI agent, he is usually called into bizarre homicide cases as a ‘consultant.’ In previous novels, Gregor is resistant to assist: he left that life behind when his wife died of cancer, and he’s reluctant to return to it. In Great Day for the Deadly, he is more open to it:

There was certainly nothing to be happy about in the death of Brigit Ann Reilly, but Gregor was happy nonetheless. Ever since he’d realized that the murder Schatzy was talking about had taken place on O’Bannion’s turf, he’d been a little surprised that he hadn’t heard from the Cardinal. Gregor knew how John O’Bannion’s mind worked. You found yourself an expert you would trust, and you stuck with him.

Besides, with Bennis working and everybody else away, a little murder case would come as a welcome relief.

It had to be better than hanging around New York City in miserable weather, listening to the worst kind of mentally rigid Bureau administrator blithering on about what a wonderful tool they had in this computer program they hadn’t yet learned how to run. [62]

(Gregor’s previous case, Precious Blood [the second in the series], took place on John Cardinal O’Bannion’s turf, which is how they know each other.)

Gregor’s specialty – aside from profiling serial killers – is poisons. Nearly all of the Gregor Demarkian novels involve murder via poison, and Great Day for the Deadly is no exception: this murder weapon is coniine, the active poison in hemlock.

Coniine was a tricky poison. Symptoms always started within half an hour. Death was most erratic. … What made coniine particularly nasty was that death was inevitable a long time before that. Coniine was one of those poisons whose antidote had to be delivered next to immediately after the poison was ingested. It was the kind of poison that grew roots. [146]

What I really like about the Gregor Demarkian series is how Ms. Haddam structures the novels. There is a Prologue, an Epilogue, and three Parts in between (sometimes called Acts). At the end of the Prologue, the first body is discovered. At the beginning of the First Part, Gregor gets called in (or, most often, convinced to lend his assistance). There are about six chapters per Part, and each chapter is broken into separate parts, told from different third-person points of view (this is especially helpful while reading before bed, because you only have to go on average another two pages to a good stopping point, unlike, say a Dick Francis novel, where you struggle to finish the chapter, only to have it end on a cliffhanger). Unlike a lot of murder mystery series, which are told from the first-person perspective of the detective, in Ms. Haddam’s series, the detective tends to take somewhat of a back seat to the characters in the town, and we the reader gets a better perspective of motives, alibis, etc. At the end of the First and Second parts, the second and third bodies are discovered (usually by Gregor, or by someone in Gregor’s immediate vicinity).

At the beginning of the third part, Gregor has figured out who the killer is, but maybe the evidence doesn’t completely point to him/her yet. In Great Day, the evidence points to a Locked Room Mystery:

Gregor Demarkian didn’t believe in locked-room mysteries. He didn’t believe in poisons that leave no trace, identical twins who successfully switch identities, or the silent menace that walks the dark, either. Back on Cavanaugh Street, Bennis Hannaford fed him detective stories the way some mothers feed their children hard candies, as a pacifier. Sometimes she hits a real clinker, a resurrected unknown ‘classic’ of the thirties. Gregor always ended up wondering what those authors had been thinking of. Mothers who didn’t know their own children. Brothers who didn’t know their own sisters. And locked rooms. Always locked rooms. [179]

So, what is the plot of A Great Day for the Deadly? Maryville, a small town in upstate New York and under John Cardinal O’Bannion’s ‘rule,’ so to speak, is home to a motherhouse for nuns and novices. A postulant nun is murdered in a huge rainstorm and is left in a storage closet of the library to be discovered. And she’s discovered with … well…

Let me back up. The Prologue has snippets of everyday life for all of the possible victims and/or killer. And while I was reading the first snippet for Sam, the local celebrity, I read this:

Years ago, when Sam had been nothing more than a decently respected herpetologist… [17]

And I quickly skipped ahead to the next couple of paragraphs, because a herpetologist is someone who studies snakes. And I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned it here before, but dudes – I hate snakes. Like, worse than Indiana-Jones-hate hate snakes. If I was stuck in the Well of Lost Souls in 1936 with an archaeology professor with a penchant for obtaining rare antiquities who happened to cross on the wrong side of some Nazis, I wouldn’t be able to hold it together long enough to swing a flaming torch around. I’d be frozen, my limbs convulsing with fear, and Indy would have had his hands full getting me to move, let alone trying to break out of the tomb. Seriously, I am scared shitless of snakes. They are my one true phobia, because logically, snakes found in the wilds of Maine aren’t going to hurt me, and the snakes in the reptile houses are behind glass, and I’m not Harry Potter. But that doesn’t mean I don’t avoid tall-grassy areas and deep woods, and walk in the very middle of the hallway when my parents and/or friends drag me into reptile houses at zoos. I also have a funny story wherein I nearly trip over a boa constrictor while at work (I don’t want to talk about it; people still think I was hallucinating, but dudes – THERE WAS A BOA CONSTRICTOR ON THE FLOOR, AND I NEARLY TRIPPED OVER IT, BECAUSE SNAKE WRANGLER DUDE DIDN’T THINK A BOA CONSTRICTOR ON THE FLOOR WAS A BAD IDEA.).

Ahem. Anyway. Brigit Ann Reilly is discovered with water moccasins slithering all over her, because it was a flood, and it was high ground. Gregor eventually finds out why the snakes were there, but Alaina’s mind was going OH SHIT SNAKES KEEP GOING.

And then the Reverend Mother General received a present:

Reverend Mother General wasn’t looking at him, even though he was human and large and taking up a good deal of space in her office. She was looking at her desk, and when Gregor looked too he understood why. The small package that had been lying under the envelopes was no longer where he had first found it, but further along the desk top near the brass base for the pen and pencil set. What was more, it was moving. [105]

OH SHIT SNAKES KEEP GOING.

So Gregor is called in, and manages to solve the case with what seems to be very little help from the locals. He does converse with his friend Bennis Day Hannaford, a woman he met on his first case [Not a Creature Was Stirring]. Yes, her name is Bennis; it’s not a typo. Bennis moved to Gregor’s building from the Main Line because she felt Cavanaugh Street was cute and quaint and she enjoyed the difference from her uptight upbringing. Gregor and Bennis have an interesting relationship: they are friends and both care about the other’s health (she’s a chain-smoker and seems to be anorexic at times; he gets into moods and forgets to eat completely); Bennis encourages his ‘extra-curricular murders’ and tends to tag along on them, where Gregor attempts to keep her out of trouble.

A quote from the Epilogue, discussing a Maryville relationship:

“He’s an enormously outrageous man,” Gregor said, “and she’s probably one out of the three women on earth who could put up with him. I talked to Cardinal O’Bannion. He says she’s bringing him back to the Church.”

“I’ll bet he’s talked her into premarital sexual intercourse anyway,” Bennis said.

“Stop thinking about sex,” Gregor said. “Think about food. Glinda looks very nice, you know, and she’s just your height. She doesn’t look as if she hasn’t been able to afford a decent lunch since 1964.”

“Never mind,” Bennis said. [280]

Finally, the last quote I have has stuck with me since the first time I read this book (2009’s read was number two, if I’m counting correctly – it was one of the last titles in the series for me to find at book sales or in the used section at my local bookstore), and I think it really sums up Gregor’s character succinctly:

[Gregor] was just taking off his watch and laying it on the little glass shelf above the toilet when the phone rang again. He grabbed for his robe — he was of a generation that had been taught to be modest even in private — and headed back for the main room… [212]

Gregor is an old-fashioned detective who doesn’t rely on cell phones or quick technology to solve his cases (at least, not this early in the series; A Great Day for the Deadly is the fifth book out of 24), but he still solves his cases efficiently and well, surrounded by great characters.

Grade for A Great Day for the Deadly: 3 stars

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