Death Comes is the second entry in Sue Hallgarth’s Willa Cather and Edith Lewis mystery series. The first was On the Rocks (2013).
There is no hint of a sophomore slump in this second novel. It’s the exact opposite — Hallgarth knocks it out of the park with Death Comes.
As regular readers of this blog know, Edith Lewis was Cather’s partner of 40 years. In this mystery series, Hallgarth presents them as a couple who stumble into mysteries.
At the beginning of Death Comes, Cather and Lewis are stepping off the train from New York into New Mexico for a vacation at their friend Mable Dodge Luhan’s home in Taos. The year is 1926. In both the novel and in real life, Cather and Lewis had visited Luhan in 1925. The historical record is not clear if they visited again in 1926, although Cather had asked if they could. Hallgarth is brilliant to set her novel in 1926, in this “maybe” version of a visit.
Mable Dodge Luhan was a real person. She was a wealthy patron of the Arts, a writer of memoirs, and a major figure in the development of the Taos artist colony. Death Comes is populated with the real artists — writers, musicians, painters — who lived in the area and/or visited Luhan’s home. One of the artists represented in the novel as a character is the Russian-American artist Nicolai Fechin.
During their 1925 visit (in the novel), Cather and Lewis had stumbled upon the dead body of a Mexican women. Upon their return, they’re dismayed to discover that nothing has been done in the ensuing year to find out who this woman was or who killed her.
To make matters worse, they’re told that recently, two more dead Mexican women have been discovered in the area. Both headless. [Note to readers who prefer cozy mysteries. There is a scene where a lot of blood is found at a campsite, a shooting, and the implication of sexual violence, but all murders and violence happen off stage.]
Cather and Lewis start asking questions and poking around the area on horseback and by car (driven by others). Soon, their acquaintances get curious as well. The local sheriff doesn’t seem to care about much and then a BOI — federal Bureau of Investigation — agent shows up. The BOI, as Hallgarth explains in her Afterward, was a precursor of the FBI. A visit to a local salon and brothel is part of the investigation.
Hallgarth does an excellent job of weaving the action of this main storyline with that of a second storyline featuring a young man named Adam, a fictitious water color artist, who is sent to caretake the home of writer D.H. Lawrence, Kiowa Ranch (this is a real place and the only property the Lawrence’s owned). Adam finds a squatter in the house, a nasty beast of man named Blade.
But once Blade gathered up what he had strewn about the few rooms and called to someone outside, Adam learned that his problem was larger than Blade.
Maria, blouse torn at the neck, skirt caked with mud and dried grass, sandals loose on both feet as though they belonged to someone else, emerged from the tiny cabin behind the house. Adam could not see her face because her long brown hair fell across it and she did not look up but pressed against the cabin’s exterior and splayed her hands across its logs as if expecting to be hit. Adam moved toward her, but Blade spun him around and said just two words. “She’s mine.”
Stunned, Adam stood a very long time in what felt like a stupor until he came up with two words of his own. “Sell her?”
Blade dropped his grip. “Ten dollars.” Exactly the amount Adam had in his pocket (24-25).
As these two storylines develop, Hallgarth gracefully weaves in a fantastic amount of relevant historical information about Cather, Lewis, Taos, the time period, and other real people who populate the novel as characters AND offers insight into Cather’s writing, particularly Death Comes for the Archbishop and The Professor’s House.
In one example, Lewis, while watching Cather nap, listens to the pitter-patter of rain on the roof. The Pueblo Indians, she had learned, identify such gentle rains as female. She begins to reflect on the differences between Freud and Jung, and how Cather used Jungian concepts of universal archetypes to portray Godfrey St. Peter’s depression and breakdown in The Professor’s House.
A two page reflection follows and even includes Cather’s now famous remark that the world “split in two” after World War I. Lewis’s thoughts end with this:
Of course, Willa being Willa, the professor’s resolution was destined to be complicated and ironic, not romantic or heroic. Her professor’s epiphany might involve such lofty Biblical archetypes as Eve and Mary, but Willa brought his experience down to earth by using a mummy to represent Eve and a dressmaker’s dummy to represent Mary. Irony, Edith smiled at Willa, still slumbering on the daybed next to her chair. Irony and Willa’s wonderfully sly sense of humor” (52).
I find the literary commentary and reflection to be just as exciting as the mystery.
This is a novel that will appeal to both mystery lovers and Cather fans. The mystery has a steady progression and it is so much fun to see Cather and Lewis alive as characters in a very particular time and place. Taos, New Mexico itself is a vibrant character.
Hallgrath lives in New Mexico and beautifully describes the magnificence of the landscape. She also shows how it was just becoming a tourist destination in 1926, yet it still had a Wild West atmosphere where prohibition and prostitution laws were hard to enforce and therefore attracted criminals like Al Capone. At the same time, Taos Indians were fighting for their rights and land. And although women had won the right to vote six years earlier, their basic freedoms were not always guaranteed.
Title: Death Comes: A Willa Cather and Edith Lewis Mystery
Author: Sue Hallgarth
Publisher: Arbor Farm Press, October 1, 2017
Source: Review copy requested from publisher.
Bottom line: A fun, yet serious historical mystery novel that will definitely appeal to Willa Cather fans, history and art history buffs, readers of Westerns, and Taos, New Mexico enthusiasts.
I also discuss Death Comes on Episode 32 of the Book Cougars podcast.