Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro
The amazing Carolyn Haines is at it again.
The compelling, complex and darkly fascinating Book of the Beloved illustrates all over again just how talented and versatile the award-winning Haines is as a writer. Beloved is a book you won’t be able to put down, Southern to the core, and it defies easy categorization (which the best books often do). Is Book of the Beloved a murder mystery? Or is it a ghost story? A Southern Gothic? Is it a multi-generational historical tale that crosses decades between the Roaring Twenties and the War Between the States? The answer is: Yes. The Book of the Beloved is all that and more.
Haines handles the various elements in Beloved with a deft, expert hand and a strong voice that remains sharply original. She writes with a clarity that brings details and descriptions into focus, and remains devilishly complex—but in a very good way. Readers should expect no less from the author of 16 Sarah Booth Delaney mysteries, her highly successful series about a Southern belle amateur sleuth and her side-kick, a tart-tongued antebellum ghost. The latest in that series, Rock-a-Bye Bones, was just released in May of this year.
In contrast to the breezy, charmingly cozy Delaney series, Haines has also authored a host of stand-alone books, including some with a decidedly dark side. Under the pseudonym of R. B. Chesterson, Haines wrote The Seeker (2014) and The Darkling (2014) to glowing reviews, including one in Southern Literary Review which stated, “Haines firmly reestablishes herself as a queen of darkness and suspense [with The Darkling].”
Among her many awards, Haines was the 2009 recipient of the Richard Wright Award for Literary Excellence, the 2010 recipient of the Harper Lee Award for Alabama’s Distinguished Writer of the Year, and winner in the Best Amateur Sleuth category for Bone Appetit at the RT Booklovers Convention’s Reviewers’ Choice Awards.
Given Haines’s many kudos, readers should know they are in the hands of a master storyteller even before peering into the first pages of Book of the Beloved. And Haines does not disappoint on that.
The story opens in 1920’s Savannah, Georgia, with a young war widow, Raissa James, but the plot carries “Miss Raissa” to Mobile and New Orleans—and perhaps to places beyond the realms on a map, not fully understood by reason.
Raissa’s husband, Alex, a young, idealistic lawyer, was killed in the Great War, and “the unfairness of [Alex’s] death—the slaughter of seventeen million in the bloodiest conflict in history—coiled around [Raissa] like a noose, strangling the pleasure from each day.”
In her grief, Raissa takes solace in routine and teaching, but as her school year draws to an end, her Uncle Brett invites her to his antebellum mansion, Caoin House, near Mobile. On the train ride to Mobile, Raissa meets Robert, a charming stranger, setting the stage for potential romance and the murder mystery soon to come.
At Caoin House, Raissa is swept up in the loveliness and luxury of the plantation and her Uncle Brett’s kind-hearted attentions. He invites her to come live with him at Caoin. But it doesn’t take Raissa long to realize the mansion, for all its lush landscaping and abundant beauty, is an enigma. Despite having been built from love for “the most beautiful woman in the Confederacy,” Caoin harbors something ugly, dark and dangerous. Somewhere hidden in that house, there is a secret from the past that someone will kill to prevent it from being exposed. Yet this someone—or something—is as intent on exposing the secret as another is on keeping it hidden.
Rassia hasn’t yet fully understood she’s landed in the crossfire of this struggle between forces when Uncle Brett hosts a lavish party for her. She enjoys the courtly attentions of Carlton, her uncle’s lawyer and a man who “moved through life with the grace of a man born to privilege.” But a younger man, Robert—the charming man she met on the train—captures Raissa’s interest and imagination far more than the elegant Carlton.
After the party, Raissa—having enjoyed several mimosas—sees a seductive ghost that evokes strong feelings in her. Or does she see a ghost? Is the presence she sees part of her tipsy imagination or someone playing a nasty trick or really a spectral being? Even Raissa questions what she saw the next day in the bright morning light. But on the night of the party, flush from dancing and imbibing, Raissa believes she is seeing “a Confederate. A man who’d fought for a defeated nation. A dead man.”
In the days that follow her sighting of the Confederate soldier, Raissa tries to make sense of what she saw and felt. She delves deeper into the history of Caoin and its earlier inhabitants as she seeks out the dark secrets the mansion seems to guard, uncovering more of the story of the house’s original owners during the War Between the States. In heartbreaking backstories, Haines reveals the suffering—even to the point of starvation—which that war brought the citizens of Mobile and its surrounding areas.
Even as Raissa digs into the past, someone else is decidedly up to no good within the house. It’s never clear to Raissa or her uncle what the purpose is, but someone keeps breaking into Caoin and searching for something.
A guest falls to his death from the high roof of Caoin House in what is first considered a freak accident. Raissa, in her shock and grief, only slowly comes to suspect murder. She starts a clandestine investigation into the guest’s death—one that will lead her to New Orleans, to a séance, and back to Caoin again where she is startled to discover yet another spectral being who may be friend or foe (or perhaps even an actual unwanted castaway child) hidden in an attic. As tensions build, the Confederate soldier seductively attempts to lure Raissa to his side, but whether for good or evil is not yet quite clear.
As Raissa works her way through a maze of hints, speculations, risks and secrets, explorations, séances, and little tidbits of knowledge and memory others share, she begins to wonder who she can really trust. The true villain is right on her trail as she finally digs out the truth in a long hidden book—the Book of the Beloved.
Haines, who knows how to weave the elements of a plot in a tight labyrinth, keeps the villain and the ultimate secret well hid until a startling and satisfying climax at the end of the book.
Book of the Beloved is Carolyn Haines writing at her best. This is a grand book to buy and enjoy. It is also the first in a new series, the Pluto’s Snitch mysteries, and at the very end of Beloved, Raissa is invited to Montgomery, Alabama, by Zelda Fitzgerald in what is sure to be an exciting sequel. Hurry up, Carolyn Haines: we’re waiting for Raissa and Zelda’s adventure.