Byerrum, Ellen. Shot Through Velvet: a Crime of Fashion Mystery.. New York: Obsidian Books, 2011. 336 pp. ISBN 978-0-451-23250-2 (paper).
The heroine is plucky. She has a great name. Her perspective on journalism’s hustle is funny. But the real reason to read Ellen Byerrum’s novels about fashion reporter Lacey Smithsonian is the clothes.
Lacey inherited her great-aunt Mini’s collection of designer clothes — and what a collection. In one of the earlier Lacey mysteries, Byerrum describes an outfit Mini wore to cover a Senate hearing: “It also provided the perfect occasion to wear a vintage designer suit with jeweled button covers, filigreed gold set with tiny pearls and rubies … a tailored black summer-weight wool, a rare vintage 1940s suit style by the renowned House of Bentley and bequeathed to her by her great-aunt.” Her aunt’s trunks and closets are full of designer clothes from the Forties, and the author describes them in loving detail throughout all of her Lacey Smithsonian mysteries.
In Byerrum’s latest novel about Lacey, Shot Through Velvet (2011), the reporter is covering the closing of a velvet factory in Black Martin, Virginia. Lacey is on the fashion beat for the Eye Street Observer but is known by many — including her exasperated editor — as the fashion girl who finds dead bodies. Byerrum wastes no time in letting you know this latest book is a murder mystery, too, opening with, “The body was blue.” The dead man is one of the factory employees, but he’s a real rotter, not someone who will be missed. Byerrum sets up a large field of suspects for Lacey and her boyfriend Vic Donovan, Dominion Velvet’s new security consultant.
Some mysteries give you a sweet victim and a wonderfully awful bad guy, who you’re just rooting for the cops to catch. This story gives you a guy everyone had a reason to kill and a set of down-and out suspects, none of whom you really want to see put in cuffs on the last page. All of these people have just lost their factory jobs, and some of them are more likeable than others, but none inspire the thought: “Oh, I hope this is the murderer.”
Byerrum infuses her novel with the sense of loss the people in this small town feel when Dominion Velvet closes. There aren’t a lot of other jobs in Black Martin, a town that wasn’t doing all that well even before the plant shut its doors. There is the single mother, Kira, the company’s bookkeeper, and the fierce-looking Sykes. (Sykes has scars related to his job as the plant’s shearer. Velvet is created when two pieces of material woven with a soft nap are sheared apart to expose the soft nap.) Blythe Harrington runs the dye house. Tom Nicholson is the general manager. All of them are out of work in an economy that doesn’t offer a lot of hope … and all of them have been wronged by the dead man — the perfect storm of tension and motive.
Lacey and Vic find the dead man in a vat of blue dye on the factory’s last day of operation. In this book, the two work together. When you read the book, you won’t wonder whether they’re a couple, whereas, in earlier books, they were still resolving this. The result, of course, is that you miss some of the thrill of the chase, some of the “Will they…?” tension. Byerrum may have lost something by going in this direction with the romance.
I can’t write a review of this fun book without mentioning Lacey’s thoughts on a certain type of crime. Lacey goes through life eyeing people’s clothes. Even though she says fashion is a personal statement, she can’t resist inward comments on the horrors of dumpy, drab, or fashionless outfits. She calls these “crimes of fashion.” The books are sprinkled with Lacey’s musings about why the overweight woman who’s snubbing her is wearing an ill-fitting (old) beige skirt with a pilled brown-grey sweater. Lacey’s Fashion Bites also are interspersed throughout — two-page lifts from her fashion column. This book has a favorite of mine: The Warning Signs of ADD: Accessory Dysfunction Disorder. Lacey names the three types of ADD: My Life as a Rhinestone Chandelier, Fear of Accessories!, and Don’t Be Ridiculous. It’s Too Good to Wear!
I have to close with the last outfit description in Shot Through Velvet. It’s, well … velvet. “She smoothed her hands over the deep red silk velvet. It was a classic, bias-cut cocktail dress from the late 1930s, dipping low in the back and hugging every curve. There was no embellishment on the dress — no lace, no beads, no crystals — but its rich velvet texture didn’t need any adornment. Mimi had carefully stitched all the pattern pieces together, but she’d never worn it. She left it unhemmed — for Lacey to finish … Thank you, Mimi.” Lacey Smithsonian walks out of the book in this gorgeous dress, but we hope she’ll walk into another crime of fashion novel very soon.
— Molly Cameron, Cameron Editorial Services
McCrumb, Sharyn. The Devil Amongst the Lawyers: A Ballad Novel.. New York: St. Martin’s, 2010. 320 pp. ISBN-13: 978-0-312-55816-1
Sharyn McCrumb continues her “Ballad” series of novels, all based on real events from Virginia and North Carolina history, with this novel set in Depression-era Appalachia. Carl Jennings is a young reporter who has landed his first big story: the trial of a beautiful young schoolteacher accused of her father’s murder. Erma’s story was inspired by the real-life tale of Edith Maxwell, who, like Erma, was tried for her father’s murder in Wise County, Virginia in 1935.
McCrumb’s focus is less on the murder than it is on the journalists who cover it. Carl’s earnest yet naïve desire to uncover “the truth” for his small paper puts him in sharp contrast to the jaded stars from the big city papers, who are intent on portraying an innocent heroine victimized by an ignorant community. These are not unsympathetic characters: young but homely Rose Hanelon settles for being tolerated by the man she loves, while Henry Jernigan is haunted by a tragedy from his past. With photographer Shade Barker, they present what they think their readers will expect: a community lost in time, full of shacks, buggies, and sunbonnets (which they pay locals to unearth from the attic and pose in). In fact, they start writing descriptions of the town before even seeing it.
The Appalachia they actually find, as depicted by McCrumb, is modernizing and reasonably prosperous for the day, full of people and houses that look much like the people and houses in other parts of the country. And yet McCrumb does add an element of mystique to her portrayal through Carl’s teenage cousin Nora. A hill girl from an impoverished family, she makes quilts from fabric scraps and is gifted with “the Sight,” an occasional ability to see things that have not yet happened or that happened long ago. Carl hopes that she will somehow magically present him with some tidbit he needs to solve the murder and make a big splash at the newspaper, but her visions — such as the little Japanese girl who follows Henry — are of a subtler variety.
Mystery readers hoping for a twist and surprising denouement will be disappointed; this sticky murder trial leaves the reader asking what “justice” would even look like in a case like this. Likewise, what would “success” mean for Carl? Can he become a major newspaper reporter without sacrificing his soul as Rose and Henry have done? McCrumb’s fans, however, will find the simplicity and long horizon of the ending to be satisfying.
— Jamie Holcomb