Faith Fairchild

(creator: Katherine Hall Page)

Katherine Hall page
Faith Sibley Fairchild is in her late twenties in the first story, and had been happily married for a year and a half. She had always enjoyed cooking and had been running a catering business called Have Faith in New York, when she had met and married Thomas Fairchild, "a New Englander born and bred, and, to make matters worse, a minister". But "Faith was no stranger to the ministry. Her father and grandfather were both men of the cloth, and she had an insider's view of parish life from childhood. The last thing she had ever thought she would do was stretch her sojourn inside the gold-fish bowl into adulthood. But in some cases the heart knows no reason." Her own "religious beliefs were somewhat eclectic".

Tom and she now live in the (fictitious) small sleepy Massachusetts town of Aleford, where, in the frst book, when not looking after the immediate needs of her five-month-old Benjamin, she is starting to find life boring. "She may have felt homesick, but wasn't actually unhappy, she told herself. Yet there was an insistent, insidious whisper murmuring in the porches of her ears that nothing had ever happened in Aleford, at least not since 1775, and that nothing ever would. Especially to Faith."

Faith "was as slender now as she had always been". She had big blue eyes and blond hair "which she wore in a blunt cut that just touched her shoulders. She was neither tall nor short. In fact she looked like a lot of other women." But "the despised New England air had given her complexion a rosy glow, which matched Benjamin's, and she looked beautiful ... She was both open-minded and given to snap judgments; label-conscious and down-to-earth; somewhat self-centered and overly generous. The one dominant trait for which there was no antiphony was her curiosity. There had never been a time when she hadn't wanted to know everything about everybody."

As her husband Tom, now minister in charge of the First Parish Church, tells her, "You are the most outrageous combination of blind trust and curiosity of any woman I have ever known!"
"Stop shouting, Tom," she replies, "you're going to wake the baby. And how many trusting, curious women have you known?"

Katherine Hall Page (1947- ) was born and grew up in New Jersey. She received her BA from Wellesley College, majoring in English and went on to a Masters in Secondary Education from Tufts and a Doctorate in Administration, Public Planning, and Social Policy from Harvard. College had brought her to Massachusetts and she still lives there. Before she became a full-time writer, she taught at high school level for many years. She has been married to Professor Alan Hein, an experimental psychologist at MIT, for over thirty years, and has a grown-up son.

The Body in the Belfry (1990)
The Body in the Belfry is set in the Massachusetts village of Aleford where the Minister's wife, Faith Fairchild, finds the body of a pretty young woman, stabbed with a kitchen knife with a pink rose twisted around it, in the church's belfry. The victim is Cindy Shepherd, well-known locally for her acid tongue and her numerous male friends. The chief suspect turns out to be her jilted fiancé. Faith cannot imagine he can be guilty so sets out to uncover the truth. In so doing, she puts her own life, and that of her baby son Benjamin, very much at risk.

She already knows Chief Charley MacIsaac of the local police, but he introduces her to Detective Lietenant John Dunne of the State Police, who was "six-foot-seven and hefty". He tells her, "Don't play amateur detective". Then he turns to Tom, "You'd be amazed at how many people who are involved in crimes like this think they can do better than the police .... I blame TV".

It is all written with a nice, gentle sense of humor. When Faith and Tom have to discuss with Patricia, Cindy's aunt, which readings to choose for her promiscuous niece's funeral, Patricia who "had been an English major at Wellesley" suggests, "Maybe Wordsworth? 'A slumber did my spirit seal'? Or part of 'Tintern Abbey'?"
Faith,
"reaching back to her own British Ports 102 .... thought 'I travell'd among unknown men' would have been more appropriate, but she kept her mouth shut."

Faith finds some photos that Cindy had hidden away.She "was evidently into porn - with herself as the star .... Some of the shots were close-ups. Unusual to collect snapshots of male organs you have known, but everone has to have a hobby of some sort, Faith suppposed."

There are lively portrayals of a host of colorful characters - more than are strictly needed. Take Pix Miller who "radiated solid common sense mixed with a very funny sense of humor. She had been a tiny child and her parents had whimsically called her 'Pixie'," But then she had begun "shooting up alarmingly in her teens so that at close to six feet, 'Pixie' was not only ludicrous, but obscene. Still, old habits die hard and she became 'Pix', which seemed to suit her." She was the sort of person everyone turned to for help. She "drove a Land Rover, bred gorgeous golden retrievers, was an expert white water canoer, and had three kids". She was "what could euphemistically be referred to as 'overextended'. In one month she probably put on the equivalent of a cross country journey chauffering the kids and doing errands."

She was unbelievably organised, though. "There were lists and notes taped to every surface in the houe: 'Samantha, don't forget your flute' and 'Danny, there are cookies in the cupboard, enjoy them while you do your spellng words,' and so on ..... What Faith, and others, did not know was that all this planning and list-making was a cover for Pix's fundamentally disorganized mind. .... Basically Pix was a dreamer - night and day. It amused her, and caused an occasional pang of guilt at the deception, that people thought she was so practical and organized. Her husband, Sam, was amused too, but that was because he had observed over the years she really had become practical and well organized without knowing it." There may be more about her here than the plot really requires, but she emerges as an interesting, living person, and, if you enjoy this sort of gossipy storytelling, it is well done.

It is no wonder that Faith tells her husband, "There are so many suspects at the moment .... it's almost an embarrassment of riches". But when there then follow page after page of conversation between the two of them, during which she solemnly writes down notes about all the suspects, including lists of possible motives, interest palls. Then there is another murder, and it all builds up to an exciting climax, even if Faith's eventual rescue seems a little tame.

It is Faith's Aunt Chat who tells her, "Faith, honey, the whole thing seems improbable. If I didn't hear it from your own lips, I would say it was some kind of plot for a novel, a rather far-fetched one at that." It is good to find an author who can laugh at herself. Recommended if you like this sort of thing.

The Body in the Kelp (1991)
The Body in the Kelp sees Faith and her young son Ben on a rather dull vacation at Maine's Sampere Island. But then she buys a homemade quilt at an estate auction. It had been lovingly constructed by wealthy, deceased, and detested Martha Prescott, and turns out to be what may be a map to the old woman's secret treasure. Faith goes on to discover a kelp-covered corpse floating in a nearby tidal pool, and further deaths follow. Faith, of course, is not satisfied until she has the whole murderous matter sewn up.

Ben is two-years-old now and is a lively realistic child, much appreciated by Tom and Faith who had both turned thirty in the spring. Unfortunately, Tom has to leave her for three weeks to work at a series of retreats, and, in his absence, the plot saunders on at too leisurely a pace. It is all quite amusing, but it seems a long time before anything very much happens. Even the discovery by Faith of a dead body strangely lacks much excitement. Then another character is killed, but she is a character who had never really come alive. Even the description of the hunt after the (supposed) treasure is not all that gripping. There's a lot of local color, as in a long description of a local dance, but when yet another death occurs, it comes without warning and involves us much less than you might suppose. Even when Faith, pursued by the possible murderer, climbs up a tree to hide, it is all described in a strangely low-beat way.

And it descends into melodrama when the murderer suddenly appears, pointing a gun at Faith and her sister Hope. Faith, of course, simply knocks one of his accomplices out with a saucepan, and her sister threw her oil lamp at the murderer, "ran over and jumped on him, brought her right knee up sharply between his legs, and wrestled the gun from his surprised hand. Only slightly flushed .... Hope called out to Faith, 'Aren't you glad I signed up for those self-defence courses, Faith?' ".

It is a disappointing book after the promise of the first one.

The Body in the Bouillon (1991)
The Body in the Bouillon is a much more interesting story. It tells how Faith is asked by her Aunt Chat (short for Charity) to "make a few discreet enquiries" about Hubbard House, a local retirement home, where a friend of Chat's had recently died, after writing her a letter hinting that that there was something odd going on there. The indomitable Faith decides to look into this elegant, secluded retirement home catering for the well-heeled Yankees of Aleford, Massachusetts, where Faith and her minister husband Tom have now been living for over three years.

All set to do some surreptitious snoooping, she joins the home's flu-depleted kitchen staff, and is even allowed to make her celebrated bouillon soup. It is unfortunate that one of the old residents dies and, as the cook explains to her, "I'm afraid they found him face down in your bouillon, Faith dear". Then a blackmailing drug dealer turns up dead in her bed - and even odder things follow.

No-one, least of all the author, takes it too seriously, and there are nice opportunities for humor as when Faith does not find it too difficult to persuade Tom not to go out one evening. "Tom realized he had not been home for the entire evening all week. He also realized there was a Celtics game on. But that had nothing to do with it." Or "If she was going to stay in this line of work, she'd have to get some rudimentary instructions in lock picking .... The problem was finding someone to show her how. Adult education tended to run to courses in patchwork and chair caning".

Reality sometimes breaks through as when "she wondered how the people who worked there (in the retirement home) were able to cope with the deaths of those they had grown close to. Her upbringing and continued sojourn in a parish had provided her with strong, difficult-to-define beliefs .... She thought she should certainly have become used to death by now. She'd been to enough funerals. Yet she wasn't. No matter what she believed lay ahead. It was still the end of this life.":

There are affectionate descriptions of young Ben (it is not for nothing that the author dedicates the book to her real-life son Nicholas), as when her husband shows her a blood-red finger painting that Ben has produced: " 'Look what Ben made. Isn't it wonderful?' Their eyes met. Neither of them had any illusions as to their son's precocity or lack thereof. It looked like millions of other two-and-a-half year-olds' finger paintings. Ben was affectionate, cheerful, sometimes cooperative, and that was enough for them." Ben is also very keen on Faith's friend Pix's dogs: "He has got to stop identifying with your dogs totally," Faith told her. "When Lizzie was over the other day, they were running from bush to bush lifting their legs and falling down convulsed with laughter". This sounds like something that may have really happened.

Another of the author's real-life interests seems to be cooking. "Tom would miss supper - much of a minister's life is spent not in prayer but at committee meetings - so Faith had cooked a big lunch .... a casserole of boneless chicken breasts she had lightly poached in white wine and layered with zucchini and carrot matchsticks and blue cheese. The juice from the chicken and what was left of the poaching liquid that she had poured over it made a delicious sauce . There was also some nutty basmati rice and steamed peapods." We don't really need to know all this, but it all adds to the flavor of the book.

By the end of the book, Faith is pleased to find herself pregnant, and is planning to take over a local catering business. Altogether, it makes an amusing light-weight read.

The Body in the Vestibule (1992)
The Body in the Vestibule is set in France where Tom is spending a month while he works on his dissertation. Faith, four months pregnant, is delighted to be going there: "Lyon was in the southern part of France, It would be warm. Her way was clear". Her son Ben is now 3 years old. But, after throwing her first dinner party there, she discovers a dead body of an old clochard (beggar) lying in the vestibule. Of course, she reports the discovery to the police, but when they turn up, there is (you've guessed it!) no sign of a body. Faith gets to know the glamorous "chief inspector of crimes" Michel Ravier, but even so ends up getting kidnapped and held in a remote French farmhouse, then gets involved in a life-and-death struggle with a would-be murderer who tried to push her down the stairs. "Faith took one hand away from the railing and slashed at her assailant's face with her nails. Blood streamed from the cuts ...." It all ends with pages of rather tedious explanation, but the basic story lacks conviction.

The author is obviously very taken with the French background (she and her real-life husband had spent a sabbatical year in France) and describes it with real affection. She likes French food too: "terrine de foie gras layered on top of an artichoke heart with a light hazlenut oil dressing and followed by rouget, filets of red mullet in a buttery cream sauce that enhanced their rich, fresh flavor layered on top" and so on. But much of the humor with which she customarily describes the Massachusetts scene seems to have disappeared, and she seems to take her unlikely plot over-seriously. A pity this, because her great strengths are in her humor and the interplay of familiar characters, both rather lacking in this story.

The Body in the Cast (1993)
The Body in the Cast describes how a Hollwood film crew, led by celebrated director Maxwell Reed, descends on Aleford, and how Faith, who has restarted Have Faith, her catering business, is hired as their caterer. But someone fills her famous Black Bean soup with Chocolax, a digestive aid, plus another liquid laxative, and the leading lady, Maxwell's wife, collapses, declaring "I've been poisoned!". Real deaths follow and
Faith's old protagonist, Detective Lieutenant John Dunne, actually invites her help: "Without getting involved - and I want to stress this ... God knows why I think it may help - you can keep your eyes and ears open." They "were a team again. At least Faith thought so." Luckily she has good friends to care for her young son Ben, as well as the new arrival, Amy Elisabeth, who is just a few months old.

All this makes an interesting setting, even if parts, such as the way Maxwell Reed uses a PA as a stand-in for nude and other scenes, does not sound any too likely. There's an interesting sub-plot too in which Faith's friend, Penny Bartlett, is persuaded to stand for selectwoman to oppose the bullying Alden Spalding in local town elections. You can guess which of them ends up murdered! Familiar local characters re-emerge, such as the redoubtable Millicent McKinley who had an "encyclopedic knowledge of the life and crimes of every Aleford inhabitant for the last fifty years", gained largely from "her daily hawkeyed observations from a perch in the front window of ye olde ancestral Colonial house, happily located directly across from the village green and with a clear view down Battle Road". And the egocentic movie stars, including the obsessive Max, and his particular bugbear, the obnoxious little girl-star Caresse, are lively creations. Faith's husband, too, is well observed, pressurised as he is by the needs of his job. Faith goes with him to church, but finds that "her mind was wandering as usual".

As before, there is a lot about food, but this time the author even includes five complete recipes (complete with such text references as "see recipe on page 326") at the end of the book. She explains that she did not do this in previous books because she was afraid that "recipes might distract readers from the plot". But she tumbles across so many dead bodies in these books that it is difficult to take the plot seriously anyway.

This is longer than the previous books, and interest sags a little in places (it might help if the author went in for shorter chapters). As Faith thinks, "This was certainly the most confusing case she'd ever been involved in". It is also pretty unlikely, as when Maxwell's wife swipes somebody over the head with her Oscar, or Faith almost manages to get herself burnt alive. As local police chief Charley MacIsaac, another of her friends, comments, "It is an amazing coincidence that Reed was filming a movie all about jealousy and meanwhile another story with the same theme was going on right in front of all our noses". Not so amazing, if you've read the previous books. But it's all quite entertaining, and enlivened by a keen sense of humor.

The Body in the Basement (1994
The Body in the Basement is described on the cover as A Faith Fairchild Mystery but unfortunately she does not appear in person until right at the end. Set on one of Maine's holiday places, Sampere Island, it starts with Faith's friend, Pix Miller, and her daughter, Samantha, finding a human hand hidden under the earth. It turns out to belong to a dead body wrapped in a very valuable antique quilt. The deceased is a local handyman with a suspiciously lucrative sideline in antiques, real or faked.

Then three dead mice, with their heads cut off, are discovered in the kitchen of the children's camp where Samantha is helping. This is only the first of a series of odd happenings. During a phone call, Pix tells Faith about the mice. Mention of the victim's funeral reminds Faith of a time when she saw a man scattering his aunt's ashes on her rosebushes. "Of course," Faith explained. "I ended up feeling sorry for him. He finished his sprinkling and I gave him something to eat. I think it was some leftover blueberry tarte." Then, believe it or not, there is a footnote saying, "See recipe on page 327". The result is not just banal, it's positively ludicrous.

Further deaths follow, until Pix and her daughter, Samantha, are captured by the murderers and left, tied up, to die on an otherwise deserted island. As Pix realises, the murderers are "nuts, completely nuts". But hardly convincing.

In the end, it is 17-year-old Samantha who emerges as the more interesting character of the two. "Pix had unfortunately assumed any adolescent turmoil on her daughter's part would be over at age seventeen. Recently, it seemed Samantha was making up for lost time, a late bloomer - not that she stayed out until daybreak or had pierced her nose. But 'Oh, Mother' punctuated their conversations with alarming frequency." Other characters, such as the terrible teenager and chief suspect Duncan (who has formed his own club - but he tells Samantha that you have to kill someone before you can join it) are much less realistic.

Pix herself is a less interesting a character than Faith, and it is difficult to feel involved in her unlikely adventures. A Faith Fairchild story without Faith just doesn't work.

The Body in the Bog (1996)
The Body in the Bog (also known as The Body in the Marsh) starts with Faith Fairchild finding her husband, the Rev Thomas Fairchild, embracing another woman. But do not worry - it is only Lucy Deane, a distraught nursery school teacher who is merely seeking solace and advice! She has been receiving threatening phone calls. And she's not the only resident of the small town of Aleford, Massachusetts, who is being terrorized. Ever since local environmentalists have begun protesting about a proposed housing development that will destroy Beecher's Bog, the more vocal opponents have become targets of a vicious campaign of intimidation.

Then a body is found in the charred remains of a very suspicious house fire, followed by anonymous letters warning, "Be careful on Patriot's Day". This is the annual holiday when local people dress up and recreate their old-time spirited defence against their English attackers. Faith welcomes the chance all this give her to do some more detective work, and copes well when more bodies turn up. But, even when she is pursued by a possible attacker hiding in the trees as she makes her way along a path, or later gets trapped by the murderer, there is less excitement than you might suppose because you know perfectly well that she'll be rescued - and so she is.

There are some entertaining characters such as the formidable old committee woman, age uncertain, Millicent (few people dare call her Milly). It is she who chairs POW! (Preserve Our Wetlands!). Other characters are more corny, such as the plain dreary-looking nursery school teacher who suddenly blossoms out as an attractive woman, having used what Faith describes as the old "take off your glasses, remove the bobby pins, shake out your hair, perch on the desk, and cross your shapely legs number."
"Just like Betty Grable," Tom commented.

Faith's own domestic life with nearly-five-year-old Ben and under-two-year-old Amy is described in a realistic way: "She could read to her children endlessly, but talking to someone (Amy) who did not talk back or replied with one word, occasionally two, as in 'Want Daddy',was not her idea of stimulating conversation. She firmly classified it with playing most games. However Tom was good at that and could spend hours spinning spinners and moving brightly colored pieces about in circles with Ben. .... As for Tom, husbands are never easy, but she loved him very much and that went a long way, especially when the seat was left up in the middle of the night."

Faith remains an interesting and resourceful character, but the author gives the impression of being more interested in the food that Faith cooks than in the murders she stumbles across. She once again not only describes this food in remarkable detail, but often refers the reader to a page at the end of the book where the full recipe can be found. She argues in a note at the back that "For many of us, reading about food and murder is the real frosting on the cake" and she quotes Lord Peter Wimsey and others. But Dorothy L Sayers would never have distracted attention from her story by referring us to a list of recipes. It just suggests that the author is not taking her plot very seriously - so why should we? But it all makes quite a cosy read.

The Body in the Fjord (1997)
The Body in the Fjord is the second book in the series that describes itself on the cover as "A Faith Fairchild Mystery", but in which she hardly appears. Instead we set off to Norway with her old friend, Pix Miller, complete with old mother, to investigate the disappearance of young Kari, a family friend, who had been a guide on a Scandie Sights conducted tour, and whose boy-friend Erik, who had also been a guide, had ended up drowned. They join one of these rail and boat tours, and Pix finds herself drawn into an unlikely world of intrigue, stolen antiques and deadly echoes from Norway's past and the Nazi occupation.

At its best, the story reads like a Norwegian travelogue, and there is even quite an interesting description of kaltbord (smorgasbord) and how to eat it. But the plot is less than gripping and, once again, Pix is no substitute for Faith, although she makes good use of Faith's contribution of skeleton keys and a hairspray (convenient for squirting in an attacker's face).

Pix has her share of adventures, including being locked in a sauna, and kidnapped, but none of it sounds too convincing: "Oh, and please don't make any loud noise," her kidnapper tells her. "If you do, I will be forced to kill you." Then "he took a gun from his pocket and held it in a beam of light. It looked very real and quite deadly." Then he goes on to offer, "Would you like some coffee? I have a thermos here." It was, she thinks, "too much. What no cakes, no vafler? She didn't bother to refuse." It all sounds pretty silly.

The factual description of a lonely isolated farm, high above a fjord, is more effective, even if what eventually happens there descends into melodrama. The whole Norwegian background (the author's own grandparents had been Norwegian) is well handled, and there are some interesting glimpses of the German occupation, as when the tour party stay in a hotel that had then been a Lebensborn home which had been one of the "breeding places for the world the Germans envisaged after the war ... Norwegian women were especially prized because of what they thought was our pure blood ... German soldiers were encouraged to father children with Norwegian women. It was their duty to the Reich." And then the women could have their babies in the Lebensborn.

The author explains: "When asked why Faith Fairchild doesn't appear more centrally in this book, I've flippantly answered that Faith would never go to Norway, because there would be nothing there for her to eat." But the Norwegian recipes (that the author affectionately remembers from her childhood) are still included - and, together with the setting, help to give the book what appeal it has.

The Body in the Bookcase (1998)
The Body in the Bookcase sees Faith Fairchild stretched almost to the limit by the capricious demands of a Boston bride-to-be, for whose wedding she is catering. Then she discovers the body of Sarah, an elderly friend who had apparently surprised burglars ransacking her home. No sooner has she been buried, than the Fairchilds find themselves the next target, their parsonage being stripped of their most precious possessions. Devastated and furious, Faith sets about searching for her stolen goods, scouring pawnshops, antique marts, and auctions. As she turns up some of their stolen property, she is drawn into a dangerous path of larceny and corruption in New England's venerable antique business - a path that eventually leads her to the surprising killer.

The author's own home had been burglarized in 1995 and "cleaned out in much the same way as Faith's". This gives a feeling of reality - and genuine indignation - to the storytelling, and the result, at first, is a much more credible and interesting story. There is mounting excitement too when Faith recognises her missing possessions offered for sale and starts to track down possible suspects.

There are some nice amusing touches as when we are told that when young Stephanie, the demanding bride-to-be, had been at college, she had "majored in social connections". And how "Shamrock had been Ben's suggestion almost two years ago for what to name his new sister. He thought it was some kind of jewel and argued that people named girls Ruby and Pearl". So they decided to use the name Shamrock for their dog.

What is still unintentionally comic is the author's continuing preoccupation with recipes, either given as part of the narrative, or in much greater detail at the back of the book. So when she is trying to persuade the police chief to arrest "the man who broke into her house, the man who tied Sarah up, the man who killed Sarah", she finds time to tell him, "I have some of those sour cream brownies (see recipe on page 341) that you like." How can anyone take this seriously?

Similarly the melodramatic climax is almost farcical. A pity because the story of the break-ins, based, as it was, on the author's own experiences was so much more real, as when Faith "went into the bathroom, locked the door, and cried her eyes out". And her description of the "insurance adjuster from hell" whose unfeeling "need to establish ownership" of her missing valuables and demand that she should produce receipts for all her missing silver, sounds as if it too could be based on unfortunate personal experience. And we are left wondering if Faith's triumphant buy-back of her own possessions from shops or at auctions could have been what the author herself had done. Or, in real llfe, did she just tell the police? Faith's old friend police chief Charley MacIsaac seems surprisingly unhelpful. Was this her own experience of the police too?

The author seems to rejoice in her unique mixture of food and murder, but you are left wondering if other lesser crimes might have been more convincing. And she does go on a bit. This book, for example, could well have ended with, "Faith had come to the end of a very long journey. She would never feel completely safe in her house again, nor take any of her valued possessions for granted. She had lost a great deal, but she had answered the most importart question. She knew who had killed Sarah Winslow and why. It brought a measure of peace." But then there's another quite unnecessary chapter - it's mercifully brief but it doesn't need to be there at all. Yet, on balance, this remains one of the better books.

The Body in the Big Apple (1999)
The Body in the Big Apple is set in New York in the late 1980s before almost 24-year-old Faith Sibley had met her future husband, the Rev Thomas Fairchild. Young, ambitious and single, she runs her Have Faith catering enterprise with verve and skill. But when she discovers that her old high school friend, Emma Stanstead, is being blackmailed, she is keen to help her. After the murder of a notorious underground radical leader (who turns out to have been Emma's father), she realizes that it is not just her old friend's good name that is in peril, but her very life.

This turns out to be rather a boring plot with fairly tedious characters, leading to a particularly unlikely ending with the murderer about to finish off his victim. He is actually pressing Emma's hand "on the grip of a gun. The muzzle was in her mouth".
"Sorry," says Faith, who has just discovered them. "I didn't know you were into bondage. I'll just be going now."
"How did you get in the apartment? Nobody called up," complains the murderer.
"I have a key. From when I catered your party," stammers Faith.
"Shit!" the murderer screams at Emma, "You give the fuckin key to everyone!"
At this, "a slight look of guilt crossed Emma's face, One more thing she'd done wrong. She probably should have kept better track of the keys."

The best part of the book is the description of her catering business in action, where even all those recipes are, for once, (fairly) relevant. Indeed they are more interesting than the protracted storyline.

The Body in the Moonlight (2001)
The Body in the Moonlight sees Faith Fairchild catering for her church's restoration fund campaign kick-off at historic Ballou house. But things go dreadfully wrong when a beautiful young woman, Gwen Lord, dies clutching her throat, moments after finishing dessert. When the police declare it a case of homicide, Faith finds her whole business is in jeopardy. And she is worried too about her husband Tom's very special interest in the victim. Then another body is found, and Faith realises that her own life is (again) in danger.

This starts out as one of the stronger and more interesting stories. Faith, worried that she may be arrested, enlists the help of her black lawyer friend Patsy with whom she "shared the sincere belief that food was an antidote to misfortune, easing the pain as well as loosening the tongue". The meal had been planned as part of a mystery evening and guests had been briefed about an imaginary crime that they had to solve. To make it more interesting, the organiser, Paula Pringle, had invited some local mystery writers to attend: "The Boston area was particularly rich in talented authors mining veins of suspense, horor, terror and fright to supply the voracious need readers have to try to outsmart them and guess who done it". Four of them came as "few writers are loath - or in a position - to turn down a free meal and a chance to sell some books".

What Faith does not tell Patsy about is her concern about her husband. She was very aware how closely she had seen him dancing with Gwen. She "couldn't forget the way he had been holding her. Or the rhythm of their bodies swaying together so familiarly, as if each already knew the way the other moved." And, after Gwen's death, Faith felt he had been strangely cold towards her. So had this been some torrid love affair with Gwen, or merely pastoral care in action? It's a pity that, knowing this author, it's not too difficult to guess the outcome.

There is the usual emphasis on food, but as the victim was poisoned, and as the story is all about catering, this does not seem as inappropriate as sometimes, although when the local school principal arrives to tell Faith that he's been accused of molesting children, it's one thing to place "a steaming cup of coffee in his hands", but quite another to add: "She set a dish loaded with oatmeal lace cookies (see recipe on page 316) on the big round table".

But the author's sense of humor enlivens the storytelling, as when the formidable old campaigner Millicent Revere McKinley ("an octogenarian forever sixty-nine") fills her house with cartons of food piled up to the ceiling in case, as was widely rumoured, all the computers would seize up at the start of the new millenium - leading to the complete breakdown not only of food supplies but of law and order. Faith, of course, had not laid in supplies as "as she would far rather face TEOTWAWKI (The End of the World As We Know It) than eat reconstituted eggs".

The climax, when one of the authors threatens Faith with a knife and explains that she is is going to be killed, just so that the murderer can write a book about it, is, as Faith herself comments, both "unbelievable and inexplicable". As, in other books, Faith has to keep the murderer talking until rescue arrives. So the murderer has time to ask her, "I wonder if there might be some way I could get the recipe for those scrumptious muffins you brought when you came to my house ... I could print the recipe in my book". Presuming the humor here is intentional, it seems misplaced. If the author doesn't take her plot seriously, who will?

The author argues that reading about food "surrounds us with both comfort and desire. When you add mystery as an ingredient, the result takes the cake". Yes, but at times it can be rather hard to swallow!

The Body in the Bonfire (2002)
The Body in the Bonfire has Faith Fairchild teaching a course on Cooking for Idiots at the prestigious boys' school, Mansfield Academy. Part of her motive for doing this is that she had been asked to help a black student, Daryl Martin, who had lately become the target of a series of vicious and anonymous racial attacks, including even a noose left on his pillow. Mansfield, she soon discovers, is a seething cauldron of secretive teenagers, academic in-fighting, and unspoken rules that complicate her task. When someone tampers with her classroom cooking ingredients - and then the burnt remains of her prime suspect are discovered hidden under a giant campus bonfire - she realises that something really dangerous is going on. And it is not long before she comes across another body.

The author, who had a teenage son of her own, is nothing if not realistic about her class: "Teenaged boys! They might give her a hard time, not want to learn what she'd be teaching, say it was all boring, make farting noises under their armpits, put straws in their nostrils, laugh uproariously when she talked about breast of chicken - the list was endless." But it takes more than this to wear Faith down, although things get complicated when she is told by her husband Tom about a phone call he's just had: "That was my father. Mother's leaving him!"

Back at Mansfield Academy, Faith seems to spend a lot of time searching her pupil's (and other staff's) rooms, including even the headmaster's study, uncovering lots of things you might expect, but not much that helps her track down the bullies, let alone the murderer. She does not hesitate to read through their e-mails too. No wonder she eventually gets one herself that reads:

MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS AT
MANSFIELD, BITCH, OR YOU'LL BE VERY,
VERY SORRY.

There are some eccentric characters who attract attention. One of them is the Headmaster's wife Zoë with her "sultry voice with a slight Russian accent" who was an "exotic creature" who "loved to talk - and, as was soon apparent, loved to talk about herself". It was she who sang mournful Russian songs in "a full-throated alto" during the great bonfire: "She was magical, standing in front of the fire, swaying loosely from side to side, her hair long and loose". It was she, too, who happily allowed herself to be seduced by one of the older students. Not a very credible character, perhaps, but certainly a colorful one.

There are also two characters who seem "completely insane", one of whom proudly shows Faith an old silver-framed photo of Hitler with "my father and his two brothers. What a day that was for them. Five minutes with the Führer. A very misunderstood man. A very misunderstood philosophy". And the other is the murderer who, as seems to happen in all the books, eventually confronts Faith in a dramatic if unlikely climax.

As usual the author has time for some quite entertaining irrelevancies, as when she reproduces a long e-mail from Faith's friend Niki, describing her holiday in Australia. Meanwhile, Faith does a lot of searching, but not very much detection as such, and in the end stumbles across the murderer's identity more by chance than by detective work. But, leavened as it is by recipes, it offers another easy read.

The Body in the Lighthouse (2003)
The Body in the Lighthouse is set on the supposedly peaceful island of Sanpere off the coast of Maine, where Faith's husband Tom is busy extending the Fairchild holiday home. So Faith with 7-year-old Ben and 3-year-old Amy temporarily go off to stay nearby with local resident octogenarian Ursula, the mother of Faith's old friend Pix Miller. It is Ursula, who knows everyone, who first tells them that something is very wrong on Sanpere that summer. The usual peace and quiet is being threatened by aggressive real estate developer, Harold Hapswell, whose plans to fill the shore with huge, showy new mansions have infuriated many residents. Ranged against him is KSS, the Keep Sanpere Sanpere campaigners who seem prepared to resort to anything, including arson, to defeat his plans. But could this include murder?

The first violent attack is when a successful local estate agent nearly dies after drinking a turpentine-laced cup of soda pop. "Sounds like something from a mystery novel," Faith comments. Violent deaths follow, but Faith is soon on the trail. As usual she places her own life in peril and, after the wrong person is arrested, confronts the villain herself - and, as so often, nearly ends up murdered.

The author's love of the island and of life there shines through, as in her affectionate description of a fund-raising local production of Romeo and Juliet, with which Faith is persuaded to help. The story is set in the summer of 2001, but she was partly writing after the September attack on the Two Towers, and is nostalgically remembering what her own happy moments on the island used to be like. "As I wrote," she explains. "I found myself giving her (Faith) some of those moments, as well - moments removed from the plot, time she watches her children and husband, wanting to remember the secure, serene feeling for ever." This comes across, but unfortunately the plot seems very slow-moving.

Tom and Faith, on the other hand, still come across as real people. Tom, explains Faith, "was very good about sharing food which was Faith's number one criterion on evaluating a candidate for marriage. Forget communication, compatability in bed, solvency et cetera. Will this potential partner for life give you a bite - or say something like 'If you wanted it, you should have ordered it'? It was a simple, easy test, one that answered all the other questions. Selfish with food, selfish with ...."

The referrals to recipes given at the back of the book continue as usual, but twice here there are even references to recipes given in previous books (e.g. "See recipe in The Body in the Bookcase")! Apart from her preoccupation with food, the author seems ready to digress in other directions too, as when we are told that Faith is reading Who Killed the Curate?, described as "British writer Joan Coggin's hilarious 1944 mystery" about the "improbable sleuth" Lady Lupin. Lady Lupin and Faith have quite a lot in common, both being in gently humorous books with unlikely plots.

Indeed the author always seems to have time for irrelevancies, such as a description of what "mooncussers" used to do (deliberately wreck ships), or of the Home Depot, full of lumber, tools and plumbing fixtures, where Tom used to spend hours of his time. The result is another remix of the familiar elements, but with a sense of nostalgia added. But it needs more than that to hold the interest.

The Body in the Attic (2004)
The Body in the Attic is set in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Faith's husband Tom is on a sabbatical, teaching a course at the Harvard Divinity School for a semester. The family is living in one of the venerable old Brattle Street houses, with a sinister attic where Faith knew "something horrible had happened ... She was certain - and she was afraid". All is explained when one of her children discovers a 1946 diary in which a young woman had described the horrifying experience of being kept locked up there by her sadistic husband.

She also meets up with an apparent down-and-out whom she recognises as Richard Morgan, a former boyfriend from her life many years before when she had been a single woman on Manhattan. She finds that she is still attracted to him, but goes on to discover that he is very different from the person she imagined him to be. A murder follows, then, as always in these books, she ends up as the prisoner of the "insane" villain - but, again as always, is rescued just in the nick of time.

Apart from the melodrama at the end, this is a much more interesting book than its predecessors. Admittedly it is a bit odd that Faith only reads strangely short passages from the dreadful diary at any one time, but this makes us want to hear more, so proves a useful device for holding our attention. Faith's feeling for the enigmatic Richard, and her concerns about Tom's dissatisfaction with his almost 10 years as a minister at Aleford that led to him taking up the temporary post at Harvard (without really discussing it with her), and the way that a glamorous post grad student seems to be showing too much interest in him, also hold the interest. We can empathise with Faith as she lies sleepless and "even the trick of going through the alphabet and naming her favorite foods wasn't working. Her husband was having a midlife crisis, although at thirty-seven, this was a bit premature." Their children, Ben, now 8, and Amy, 5, also come across as real people, as do the homeless for whom both Tom and Faith feel real concern.

The author explains that "mysteries are comfort books" and offering comfort seems to be her aim. But in this story, told in her usual gently amusing way, she comes closer than before to tackling real issues of love and loyalty, and you are left wondering whether the murder was really necessary at all. But it seems that that, and recipes, is what her readers expect. Recommended as the best of the series so far.

The Body in the Snowdrift (2005)
At the start of The Body in the Snowdrift, Faith Fairchild has a bad feeling about her father-in-law's decision to celebrate his seventieth birthday with a family reunion ski week at the Pine Slopes resort in Vermont. The problem with the Fairchild family is that there were "so many of them and they were so bumptious," as Faith's mother put it.

Tom and her children enjoy themselves skiiing. Ben is now almost ten and "couldn't seem to wait for his voice to change and his hair to grow in all sorts of new places", while Amy is six-and-a-half). But then Faith comes across a corpse on one of the cross-country trails, the apparent victim of a heart attack. The Pine Slopes' master chef disappears, the Fairchilds' condo is broken into, and a chairlift is sabotaged. Another corpse is found - this time one that has been scattered all over the snow by the snow-making machine. Faith (as nearly always seems to happen in these books) ends up by being knocked out, then has her life threatened by the murderer whose identity she has totally failed to anticipate: " 'If you move, I'll have to kill you. Kill you sooner. I mean it, Mrs Fairchild.' He raised his hand. He was holding a gun. He definitely meant it." If he'd read all the previous books, he'd have known not to waste time talking.

The emphasis, though, is not on exciting action (not the author's strong point) but on the family quarrels that are festering away. These soon get distinctly tedious, and characters like glamorous Glenda, the wife of Tom's youngest sibling, Craig, are not exactly convincing, as when she tells Faith, "I thought he (Craig) had money, a lot of money." She had found too late that he hadn't. Unlike his older brother Robert: "Maybe he's the one I should have gone after. He's definitely got bucks, and he's as good-looking as Craig, maybe better."

Another over-the-top character is Tom's sister, Betsey, the domineering mother of two teenage boys, every aspect of whose lives she seems determined to control. "You have to know what's going on all the time," she tells Faith, who felt she "gave new meaning to the expression, control freak". And, included in the cast, there's even a mad girl who calls herself Ophelia!

There are occasional lively moments as when the nasty new chef arrives and Faith greets him warmly, explaining who she is and how she's been filling in for him. "I don't have all the time in the world to chitchat, lady," he tells her abruptly. And "with a swift motion, he crumbled the lists (of supplies she had ordered) in a ball and tossed it into the trash can. 'We'll keep the steaks, add more pasta, and fry all the fish. That's what people want'." Faith tries in vain to remind him that it was meant to be a French restaurant.

Faith is no great detective but she's good at following people and eavesdropping, and this leads her to stumble into solutions. Her great strength, of course, is as a cook, as when she steps in to take the place of the missing chef and there are lengthy descriptions of what she prepares. Here's a typical example of her enthusing about her special Nordic meal:

"She gave the Swedish meatballs one last pinch of freshly ground nutmeg before declaring them done. She'd made them the day before - essential with this recipe (see recipe in 'The Body in the Cast'). The thinly sliced cucumbers with plenty of dill, white vinegar, sugar, salt, and pepper had spent the night in the fridge too. The salmon was ready for poaching, and the traditional mustard sauce with more dill was all set. Two vats of yellow split-pea soup with plenty of fragrant diced ham were simmering on the back burners. In addition she'd made a kind of Scandie coleslaw with finely shredded red cabbage and diced apples, with just lemon lemon juice and a pinch of sugar and salt for dressing ...." And so it goes on ... and on.

Even people remind Faith of food. The girl Juana's "cocoa-colored skin was smooth and unblemished .... Her eyes were dark, too, but flecked with gold. She had reminded Faith of those very special French Bernachon biscuits called palets d'or, gold coins. The bonbons were round disks of bittersweet chocolate imbedded with tiny pieces of gold leaf."

The most surprising thing about this book is that it won the Agatha Award for the best fiction of the year This is for a novel written in the style of Agatha Christie, which contains no explicit sex or excessive gore or violence, but usually features an amateur detective, journalist, or an ordinary citizen, in a confined setting, with characters who know one another. Perhaps there was not much competition that year.

The Body in the Ivy (2006)
The Body in the Ivy sees Faith Fairchild lured to cater on a remote island where a wealthy author, who calls herself Barbara Bailey Bishop, has invited a group of women, all but Faith being ex-Pelham college students from 30 years before. "What on earth are we all doing here?' they wonder. It turns out that Barbara Bishop intends to unearth the mystery of how a popular, wealthy student Hélène Prince, who had been her own beautiful but unscrupulous twin sister, had come to fall to her death just before graduation all those years ago.

With no phone lines, cell reception or boats, the women, who all turn out to have had motives for killing Hélène, find themselves trapped on the island - then Faith finds the first body and the guests start to realise they are going to get murdered one by one. If the basic idea sounds familiar, it is because it is based on Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None (original pre- political correctness title: Ten Little Niggers), also about ten people cut off on an island at the mercy of the one who is a killer.

As told by this author, the story is not all that exciting or interesting, and is not helped by frequent, and, at first confusing, flashbacks to the women's time at Pelham College, although the sort of life students then lived at such a place (where one of the rules was that if you had a male visitor, a total of three feet were to stay on the ground at any one time) is not without interest. Indeed the author explains that she herself had attended such a college, reflecting a time "when young women were thought to need stringent regulations lest they wittingly or unwittingly run amok". But she "loved those years" and says that she does not want us to think that because the book "depicts the way a group of friends is destroyed by the pathology of one member ... that I think this is what happens when you isolate women in a college setting."

Neither husband Tom, nor 11-year-old Ben and 8-year-old Amy, play any part in the story, and they are sadly missed. Faith ends up hit on the head and confronted by the murderer with a gun (as usual! How has the author the nerve to repeat this scenario in book after book? Hasn't her editor read all the previous ones?). It is all remarkably unconvincing.

The Body in the Gallery (2008)
The Body in the Gallery gets off to quite a lively, interesting start with Faith Fairchild taking over the catering at Aleford's Ganley Art Museum where she helps her friend Patsy Avery investigate a possibly faked painting. Then the bald body of a young woman turns up in one of the exhibits: a tank of water that was meant to contain just a goldfish. Meanwhile Faith's12-year-old son Ben becomes involved in a cyberbullying episode, and her clergyman husband Tom is less than happy with her detective work.

As usual, there's a lot about food : "Faith was watching Tom eat a late supper. She'd started him on a sandwich she'd thrown together - sourdough bread, smoked turkey, a little cranberry conserve with a slice of farmhouse cheddar and lettuce - while she made emergency 'Pantry/Fridge Soup' (see recipe, p258)." This cookery background is well handled throughot. It is when the author gets onto the murder plot, that she is a lot less convincing.

But, if you don't take the plot too seriously, and enjoy cookery plus cosy crime, it's all written with gentle humor, a lightness of touch, and, every now and then, a concern with real human issues- such as the difficulty of dealing with her young son: "Now he never seemed happy, and his temper was on a hair trigger. Faith kept telling herself that it was the age. Hormones. Puberty. All those dreaded events such as when one's little boy stopped smelling like Johnson's baby shampoo and started reeking of Right Guard and hair gel." This is described so realistically that you wonder if the author was writing from first-hand experience.

The redoubtable old busybody Millicent Revere McKinley is as interfering as ever: "Faith had barely lifted the heavy brass knocker when Millicent opened the door. Besides Main Street, the McKinley perch had a clear view of the green and all the houses bordering it.
'Come in, dear. No little ones?'
Faith tried hard not to grind her teeth. Millicent, having watched her leave the parsonage, knew very well that she was alone. Her remark was meant to imply that Faith had once again abandoned her children, irresponsible mother that she was.
'They're busy with school work. Tom's home.'
It paid to keep responses to this kind of remark short, although Millicent usually came back with a knockout punch. Today was no exception.
'Poor Tom. He must be tired after the service. Plus he's so busy all week. I don't know how our men of the cloth do it. And then to have to watch the children when no doubt he'd like a little time to himself or a nap. He looked terribly tired at the Harvest Festival ...'
Bad mother and bad wife."

Conversations like the above show the author at her best. What is much less convincing is when she starts instructing the police how to identify the corpse which, she tells them, had "had a good pedicure and manicure recently. A French manicure. White tips, pale polish. Classy. Not bright red talons. Maybe the lab could figure out what brand the polish is and ask around at the salons on Newbury Street. She has Newbury Street written all over her, unless she turns out to be from New York. We'd know more if we knew how her (missing) hair was styled. Wait! Find out whether anyone has had her head shaved recently at one of the hairdressers. She could have wanted it done herself, a sort of retro Sinead O'Connor thing. It would have to be very recently. There isn't a hint of stubble which means we have no idea what colour her hair was."

In fact, observant and inquisitive though Faith is, she does not prove such a great detective as even she makes a mistake about the murderer's identity - and has to save her life by throwing food at her assailant(s). Oh well, perhaps it's what you might have expected!


The author has her own informative website.



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Body in the Belfry cover
All the books have "body" in the title. After a time, the frequent discovery of bodies strains credulity more than a little.
Body in Ivy cover
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