For me the chief charm of Sarah Stewart Taylor's Sweeney St. George is not as an amateur sleuth but as a college art professor with a specialty in cemetery statuary, graveyard iconography, and mourning rituals. Given a choice between being in the room when she reveals the identity of the murderer or taking her Mourning Object seminar, or even Looking at Culture: Art and Social History, sign me up for the latter. I do not have anything close to Taylor's expertise on such things, but I certainly have the interest. So when Sweeney starts explaining the origin of mourning jewelry as it relates to the death of both Queen Victoria's mother and husband as well as the American Civil War I am just fascinated.
However, "Mansions of the Dead" is a murder mystery and not a seminar paper, although the two are linked. Because of her expertise on mourning jewelry Sweeney is asked by the Boston police to look at some pieces found on a dead body. Sweeney obliges but is rocked when she learns that the victim was Brad Putnam, one the students in her seminar. That not only means that this time it is personal, but also that it is political, because Brad is one of "the" Putnams, a Kennedy-like clan in terms of not only their wealth and connections, but also in the way that personal tragedy has touched their family.
The elements that we enjoyed in "O' Artful Death" are once again all present in Taylor's second novel. Sweeney's expertise gives her insights into a murder investigation that leads to an entirely different path of evidence and reasoning than what is being pursued by the police. She has questions, a lot of questions, and this habit of continuing to question the answers she gets to the original questions. There is always a paragraph in one of these novels where Sweeney asks herself a half-dozen questions in a row, which I like, because it means she is getting serious. There is also the vacuum of Sweeney's love life, as she tries to move towards filing the vacuum in her life left by Colm's death, and finds herself drawn to someone who intrigues her but has the downside of being a suspect in the murder at hand.
What is different is that Taylor has made a concerted effort to flesh out the rest of the characters in the story. Everybody in the Putnam clan has a chapter or two in which we get to find out what they are up to away from Sweeney's investigation, and the same applies to some of Sweeney's students and Detective Timothy Quinn, whose home situation is not really germane to this mystery but which may (or may not) portend something down the road for our heroine, assuming that future adventures take place in the greater Boston area and not in other parts of New England (although a friend on the police will certainly not hurt). Some of this is character development and part of it is clues, which means red herrings are involved as well, but clearly Taylor is trying to expand the scope of her storytelling.
Again, "Mansions of the Dead" is not one of those mysteries where you have a chance of figuring out things before the heroine. Taylor lays out all of the clues before you and so when Sweeney makes all of the pieces fit you will know exactly what she is talking about. We know from the start that the mourning jewelry figures in Brad's death, so the big question is "how?" Just keep in mind that the way Taylor writes a mystery is like those logic puzzles you did back in school, where you had to find out who lives in the green house and what the Italian drinks: evidence that eliminates possibilities is as important as evidence that points an incriminating finger. You have to remember that Sweeney St. George is a neophyte when it comes to being an amateur sleuth and part of her charm is that she has not really realized she is a character in a series of mystery novels.