Little old ladies and the Civil War add layers of plot to 'MacPherson's Lament'

December 03, 1992|By Susanne Trowbridge | Susanne Trowbridge,Contributing Writer

Sharyn McCrumb's earliest Elizabeth MacPherson novels were fairly traditional mysteries, but in the past few years, she's been taking risks that most genre authors wouldn't dare to attempt. Her last MacPherson book, "Missing Susan," was more of a "will-he-do-it" than a whodunit, and "MacPherson's Lament," seventh in the series, is equally innovative.

Heroine Elizabeth, an unemployed forensic anthropologist who lives in Scotland with her husband, doesn't even turn up until two-thirds of the way through the book; instead, the focus is on her brother Bill, a well-meaning but fairly dim fellow who's just starting out as a lawyer. Bill and a female law school classmate, A. P. Hill, have opened a small firm in Danville, Va. Bright and beautiful A. P. is a natural legal talent, but the hapless Bill almost gets himself disbarred on his very first case.

Initially, the assignment seems simple enough. A group of sweet little old ladies wants Bill to sell their gorgeous estate, the Home for Confederate Women, preferably to a rich Yankee. After taking a hefty commission, Bill is to wire the money to a bank in the Cayman Islands, as the ladies claim not to trust American banks.

Unfortunately, the elderly women aren't as kind and innocent as they appear to be. By the time the young lawyer figures out that he's been swindled, the ladies are long gone. Bill stands accused of murdering them for their money.

If that's not enough, Bill's own mother has hired him to represent her in her divorce from his father. Margaret MacPherson wants her son to file a restraining order against his dad, who keeps coming back to the house and overfeeding the goldfish. "I can always tell when he's been in the house, because there's a little bloated body floating on top of the water," Margaret fumes.

But the dauntless Elizabeth returns from Scotland to help her brother, and, perhaps, to reconcile her parents. Her first order of business is to track down eight very clever old ladies.

The first half of the book is peppered with Civil War flashbacks, which slow the action a bit; it's not until much later that we finally find out why they are there. A subplot concerning A. P. Hill's first case as a court-appointed lawyer, defending a man accused of killing his girlfriend, is much more successful, showing the idealistic young attorney's inner turmoil over her client's guilt or innocence.

Ms. McCrumb veers with ease between poignant scenes and wildly funny satire. "MacPherson's Lament" may not be a traditional mystery, but it is wonderfully entertaining nonetheless.

Ms. Trowbridge is a writer living in Baltimore.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "MacPherson's Lament"

Author: Sharyn McCrumb

Publisher: Ballantine

Length, price: 260 pages, $17

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