I am generally not a fan of short stories. They are almost universally too spare in even rudimentary character description, too thematically simple, and often resolved with a slap-dash finality that is unsatisfying. However, as a reader of intelligent mysteries, I was willing to give short stories in a favorite genre a try.
Virginia is for Mysteries: An Anthology of Mysteries Set in and around Virginia is a collection of 17 short mysteries by 14 Virginia authors set in several locations in the Old Dominion. Most of the stories are entertaining and absent of abject gore, while some are quite good and two deserve special mention.
Meredith Cole’s Murder at Monticello is an 11-page third-person cozy mystery featuring long-suffering but amiable tour guide Rory Adams leading 20 eminent horticulturalists to Charlottesville’s Monticello, home of Thomas Jefferson, for a tomato tasting. Despite Rory’s best efforts at keeping track of her group’s movements, someone is found dead at the tasting.
What makes Murder at Monticello an engaging read is that anyone who has been with a group of experts knows that a fact is not necessarily a fact when multiple and dissenting opinions are involved. Cole does an excellent job of describing the key personalities and their opinions so that I had a clear image of each person mentioned. Monticello and its grounds receive equally detailed renderings that imparted a sense of grandeur to one of the USA’s iconic places. The story also mentions Jefferson’s real life interests in architecture and plants and their cultivation as well as his ignominious use of slave labor in his gardens. This inclusion of accurate details about Jefferson does much to encourage further reading about the third President of the United States -- quite a feat given the limitations of the short story and cozy mysteries in general.
Fiona Quinn’s The Caged Bird is a 15-page chiller that has a lingering Southern Gothic ambience. The story centers on Millie Anderson, a teenager whose father Lloyd is serving time in a Richmond prison for the murder of a young woman. After a chance encounter with Rooster Bowling, the lawyer who defended her father at his murder trial, Millie queries Bowling about the findings of the investigation and reads his files on the case. What she finds is circumstantial evidence, probable class and race discrimination, and a crucial yet overlooked clue that might mean the charges brought against her father were erroneous.
Quinn’s spare yet illuminating first-person storytelling is perfect as she reveals just enough facts to urge readers forward without unnecessary story lines or characters to divert attention from examination of the facts. Also, Quinn’s descriptions of the area of the murder and Millie’s Richmond neighborhood near historic St. John’s Church are accurate and its graveyard depictions are spot-on creepy.
The Caged Bird is a compelling mystery that reveals itself methodically and logically. It also pricked my conscience about the validity of the saying “innocent until proven guilty” and the social conditions that can disprove it.
Virginia is for Mysteries is a fun and sometimes informative book that satisfies a mystery jones and tells more than a reader might know about Virginia, its people, and its history. What’s not to like?