“Dead Letters from Paradise” by Ann McMan

Dead Letters from Paradise (Bywater Books, 2022) by Ann McMann blends literary mystery, historical fiction, and romance with entirely delightful results. There are no dead bodies in this mystery, and there’s no overt sex in the romance. Yet here are two reasons—among many—to love this novel. First, the crisp, yet lyrical prose style, coupled with perfect plotting make it a breeze to read, one of those hard-to-put-down stories that keep you turning the pages. Second, the novel is filled with lovely truisms as forty-five-year-old EJ Cloud reexamines her life and her town, Winston-Salem, in April 1960.

EJ has inherited her father’s house after his death—and also inherited his cheerful neighbors Fay Marian and Inez, who become her friends. Maybe her first real friends. Ever. EJ has never married and— raised by strict, very traditional parents—never had a social life. In addition to Fay Marian and Inez, a firecracker ten-year-girl, Harrie Hart, explodes into EJ’s life. This motherless, streetwise child brings adventure, new insights, and an opportunity to nurture the next generation into EJ’s world.

Each chapter begins with a biblical quotation and an illustration of one herb from the Hortus Medicus community gardens that EJ weeds as a volunteer. The garden, established by the Moravians who settled the area, contains healing herbs. EJ’s day job is processing dead letters at the Winston-Salem Post Office. The mystery begins on the first page when another garden worker hands EJ a stack of letters that have been delivered to Mary Ann Evans. There’s just one problem: no one by that name has ever been associated with the garden. And there’s no return address. EJ detects the “heady scent of bergamot, jasmine and vanilla” on each of these passionate love letters. The perfume is one of many clues she follows to try to locate the mysterious sender. Since every detective must have sidekicks to consult, she enlists the help of Fay Marian, Inez, and the irrepressible Harrie Hart.

The passionate letters are not the only touch of romance in this tale. It dawns on EJ that Fay Marian and Inez have a special relationship that transcends friendship. As the story progresses, EJ becomes aware of parts of her own nature that have been repressed. She has never really dated or allowed herself to know passion.

Through EJ’s experiences, the racial history of Winston-Salem comes alive. Without first intending to, she participates in a lunch counter sit-in. This leads to one of the faith-based truisms scattered throughout the story:

The tectonic plates of history were shifting, moving us all into different states of being—into better ways to respect, honor, and understand one another. Why were so many of us desperate to inveigh against it? To cling to our old ways out of fear and desperation? The Bible taught us that when the scales fell from our eyes, we could no longer see the world as it had been. Today, when the scales had dropped from my own eyes, I could no longer deny that every person was imbued with the simple right to sit down and eat a piece of pie.

Similarly, EJ remembers how “Happy Hill,” the African-American neighborhood across the creek, had been forbidden territory in her mother’s opinion. The creek was the dividing line between the Black and White worlds. Why did that line exist, she wonders? In the story’s background loom St. Philip’s Church (for Whites) and the African American Moravian Church, another racial division.

EJ’s Black co-worker Lottie becomes a pivotal character, pointing out that they have never socialized even once in twenty years of working side by side:

“Twenty damn years. And in all that time, have you ever thought about the fact that we’ve never so much as gone out for lunch together? Or visited each other’s houses? Or sat beside each other on the same damn bus? Or have you ever wondered, even one time, if I get paid the same amount of money as you for doin’ the same damn day’s work, year in and year out?”

Blinders slide off. EJ sees her town’s divisions and herself in a clearer light.

Even though the novel contains serious introspection, subtle humor also permeates the tale. For example, while relaying the importance of R.J. Reynolds to Winston-Salem, the narrator slips in a sly dig:

My daddy used to say you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting somebody who worked for R.J. Reynolds. I carried his assessment a bit further: you couldn’t walk ten feet in this town without stepping on one of Mr. Reynolds’s cigarette butts.

That observation is one of many moments that brings a wry chuckle.

Literary buffs will delight in the many references to George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch—and may even be driven to read the story once again. Mystery buffs will enjoy EJ’s obsession in tracking down every possible clue to uncover the letter writer and return missives to her. Yet the biggest delight of all is watching a middle-aged woman come into her own. By embracing her community and listening to all of its voices—whether Black or White, straight or gay, young or old—EJ offers hope that no matter our age, all of us can change and work for a better, more inclusive world.

Ann McMan

Ann McMan is the author of twelve novels and two short story collections. She is a two-time Lambda Literary Award recipient, a four-time Independent Publisher (IPPY) medalist, a Foreword Reviews INDIES medalist, and a laureate of the Alice B. Foundation for her outstanding body of work. She lives in Winston-Salem, NC.

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