Skeletons in the Attic: A Marketville Mystery

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Skeletons in the Attic, Judy Penz ShelukWritten by Judy Penz Sheluk — Abigail Barnstable disappeared without a trace 30 years ago, leaving behind her young husband Jimmy and six-year-old daughter Callie. Raised by her doting father, Callie reaches her mid-30s oblivious to a mountain of family secrets until Jimmy’s death in an industrial accident starts her on a path of discovery. Callie narrates this present-day cosy mystery by Canadian author Sheluk, set in the fictional town of Marketville, an hour north of Toronto.

The first surprise is in her father’s will. Not only does Callie inherit a house in Marketville, he leaves her $100,000 to fix it up. The catch? She has to quit her dead-end job in a bank call centre fraud unit and move into the house for a year. Renovation will be a major undertaking, but her father also left her a connection with the building contractor living next door – a handsome single man named Royce who is more than happy to help Callie develop her fix-up plans.

Oh, and while she’s living there, Jimmy wants her to try to find out why her mother disappeared. She learns that more than a few people think Abby was murdered. At the time, the police suspected foul play – and Jimmy – but nothing was ever proved. The bequest may be his way of asking her to clear his name. These early chapters of the book provide an intriguing set-up, establishing a strong motivation for Callie to investigate. Since Abby’s body was never found, what did happen to her?

The small-town setting is ideal, because everyone knows everyone, and even 30 years on, revel in revisiting their speculations and suspicions. Small-town gossip never dies, it steeps.

Once Callie takes up residence, she encounters a series of puzzles and clues that kept me intrigued. Since Jimmy had the attic locked, and her mother’s things are still up there, that’s where Callie begins her search. Right off the bat she makes the shocking discovery of a coffin with the skeleton (of the book’s title) inside… When tearing up the decrepit carpeting to expose the hardwood floors, Callie finds an envelope containing five tarot cards and a locket with a man’s photo. Not her dad. Like the cosy mysteries recommended in our St Valentine’s Day article My Bloody Valentine, the disappearance of Abigail Barnstable seems to be down to an affair of the heart.

Who put the things under the carpet, and were they hidden or left for her to find? And who is this mystery man in the locket? Before long, Callie has way more questions than answers and energetically sets out to even the tally. She reaches out for help from a number of people along the way, though she’s never quite sure how much she can trust some of them. As Sheluk presents them, they are all a bit suspicious, even the over-friendly ones. If you’re like me, you won’t trust any of them!

Occasionally, Sheluk’s dialog is a little stiff, and she sometimes over-explains, but she moves the plot along briskly. Everyone keeps telling Callie to be careful but it’s not clear why, because there’s never any real sense that she’s in any physical danger – no noises in the night, no strange cars tailing her, no ominous text messages. That’s not to say there isn’t a significant risk to her emotional health that might result from mucking around in 30 years’ worth of carefully kept family secrets. Sheluk could have upped the ante here.

The risk to Callie’s romantic health is also real, when Royce’s family turns out to have some sizeable skeletons hiding in their own closets. For most of the novel that relationship seems to be moving forward smoothly and might even overcome these ghosts, but the author leaves us to speculate on how their budding relationship may play out. At the end of the book, all possibilities are open.

A number of other issues were unresolved – the circumstances of Callie’s father’s death, for instance. But at the end of the book, his death is dismissed as a simple accident in a way that doesn’t satisfy, given the build-up. Nor do we know how various important family estrangements will – or won’t – be rectified. If you like a tidy ending with all questions wrapped up neatly and tied with a bow, this book doesn’t do that. You must rely on Sheluk’s portrayal of Callie to guess how she, at least, will behave going forward.

Many of the people Callie enlists in her quest along the way are intriguing, and at least one of them – her long-time friend and operator of the Glass Dolphin antique shop, Arabella Carpenter – features in Sheluk’s previous mystery, Hanged Man’s Noose, also published this year. While I think Sheluk left some loose ends with this book, she is certainly a writer whom I would gladly read again.

Imajin Books

CFL Rating: 3 Stars

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