Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Family Vault by Charlotte MacLeod

Several years ago, I was asked to write an introduction to a new edition of Charlotte MacLeod's The Family Vault. It occurs to me that there's a new generation of mystery lovers who may not be acquainted with this book and so I offer you the introduction I wrote then and hope you'll be moved to go find a copy of this lovely book.


There are only a handful of mystery novels whose perfectly delineated characters, ingenious plots and delightful narration made my reading of them so pleasurable that I wish I could read them all over again for the first time.

You are holding one of them.

If you bought this book because your first copy has fallen to pieces with so many re-readings, welcome to the club.

If you borrowed it from your local library because you enjoyed it immensely when you first read it years ago and you want to see if the story holds up, believe me: it does.

If you acquired it to finish out your collection of Kelling novels, then you already know some of the surprises Charlotte MacLeod devised for you.

But if this is your very first meeting with Sarah Kelling, oh how I envy you!

Writers must, of necessity, have fairly healthy egos else they could never put fingers to keyboard in the first place. I read The Family Vault in 1979, its year of publication, while I was struggling with my own first mystery novel; and I read it with growing awe and despair. My manuscript was a recalcitrant pile of yellow second sheets that refused to coalesce into a logical plot. Worse, it was peopled by galumphing characters without the least scintilla of the charm that seemed to flow effortlessly from Charlotte MacLeod’s elegant fingertips.

“I can’t do this,” I thought, and was so totally inhibited that I couldn’t write for a week. Fortunately for me, the next author I read was perfectly fine and perfectly ordinary. My ego picked itself up off the floor, shrugged its shoulders and went back to work. So I couldn’t write as beautifully as Charlotte MacLeod. Few mortals can. Get over it.

The Family Vault was Sarah Kelling’s debut (there have since been eleven more installments in the series), yet she leaps off that very first page fully rounded and irresistibly appealing. She begins as a young wife, part of an extended, and inbred, clan of Boston Brahmins. She finishes—ah, but that would be telling.

I wish it were possible to make this introduction a thoroughgoing discussion of the novel itself: to look at its themes, dissect the moral codes of the major characters, and cite specific examples of Ms. MacLeod’s clever insertion of red herrings and right-under-your-nose clues that play fair but seem so inconsequential that they slide smoothly past without the reader’s noticing. Unfortunately, the convention is that nothing must “spoil” the ending—as if whodunit, how and why were all that matter in a mystery novel and the craft itself unimportant.

So enjoy the ride you’re about to take, a ride as smooth as Alexander Kelling’s beloved antique electric car. You’re going to feel sad for sweet and gentle Alexander, appalled by his monstrously self-centered mother, exasperated by most of the Kelling tribe, and protective of Sarah herself, a poor little rich girl if there ever was one.

A word of caution: take your time, do not rush through this book. Savor it as Sarah Kelling savored her Milky Way candy bars. Because when you’ve finished, you’re going to wish you could read it all over again for the first time.

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