“The Devil’s Bones,” by Carolyn Haines

Carolyn Haines

Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro

Best-selling, award-winning author Carolyn Haines writes wickedly entertaining, intelligent, and consistently compelling books, some dark, some cozy, some spiritual, and some just plain fun. In her prolific and diverse writing career, she has authored more than eighty books, including several series and one nonfiction publication. Inducted into the Alabama Writers’ Hall of Fame this year, Haines is not resting on her laurels but continues to produce top quality books. Thus, it is no surprise that her newest book, The Devil’s Bones (Minotaur Books, July 21, 2020), is a complex, delightful cozy of a mystery involving the feisty women detective partners from Zinnia, Mississippi, Sarah Booth Delaney and Tinkie Richmond, along with their friend and sidekick, journalist CeCe Dee Falcon.

The Devil’s Bones is the 22th book in a popular series that started with Them Bones (Bantam, 2009). Each book in the series features Sarah Booth Delaney, a failed actress who returns home in Them Bones to Mississippi to find her family plantation on the brink of ruin. Sarah Booth’s retreat to Mississippi in the inaugural book presents her as unmarried, unemployed, and over-thirty, and an unconventional Southern belle. Sleuthing, however, comes naturally to her, and she forms the Delaney Detective Agency. She is aided by Jitty, the ghost of her great-great-grandmother’s nanny. Jitty operates as the traditional side-kick in some ways, but is also the voice of Sarah Booth’s subconscious at times. Tart-tongued and capable of taking on many forms, Jitty also rarely misses an opportunity to remind Sarah Booth of her failure to produce an heir for the family plantation.

While Sarah Booth, in all her complexities and glories, is the star of the series, Tinkie, a certified “Daddy’s girl” with an independent streak an acre wide, holds her own, as do a host of other characters. Jitty can steal a scene quicker than a freckle-faced child with a puppy, and Tinkie is adept at the droll one-liners that roll through the stories.

If one of the trademarks of good Southern literature is eccentric, compelling characters, Haines nails it time and time again in the Bones series. In Devil’s Bones, Cosmo Constantine is an entomologist who “can’t kill a fire ant when it’s biting him,” but might not be above poisoning off some people to preserve his piece of paradise. Eric Ward, a dreamboat single pharmacist, has a secret from the town (but not a dark one; rather a lovely, fun one). He loves cats and old people and lowers the charge for folks who can’t pay for their prescriptions. Yet Eric might be poisoning bad people. And don’t forget Sheriff Glory J. Howard, a former rodeo star who rides a horse to the scene of the first murder. Her soft spot for Eric and Cosmo compounds her job when they surface as likely suspects in a series of murders. Pay attention to Glory’s horse, by the way, as the story unfolds.

In Devil’s Bones, Sarah Booth, Tinkie, and CeCe head to Bexley Bed and Breakfast retreat in Lucedale, Mississippi, with plans for a relaxing, pampered weekend of facials, massages, and world-class eating. Tinkie is pregnant after being told she could never bear a child and the pregnancy creates some challenges for her and Sarah Booth. CeCe is a working journalist trailing around with Hans, a TV journalist who might help boost her career into television. Sarah Booth misses her beau, Sheriff Coleman Peters, but never loses her sense of humor or her boldness. Jitty, as the accompanying haint, is not bound by her residential home, but travels with Sarah Booth on their retreat to the B&B. Tinkie, on a spiritual quest as she awaits her child’s birth, also wants to take in the sunrise Easter service at nearby Palestinian Gardens, a miniature Holy Land that spreads over twenty acres and has recreations of Jerusalem.

Of course, the relaxing part of a relaxing weekend is not going to happen. When the trio heads out for that Easter service with the garden’s creator, worship is interrupted by an irate Cosmo who fears the crowds will endanger the habitat. Soon after the disrupted service, Sarah Booth, Tinkie and Cece find a dead body. The corpse is quickly identified as Perry Slay, an odious lawyer that just about everybody in the community hated—and for good reason. One local says: “Perry Slay was a gnat in the eye of mankind.” With a suspect list that includes nearly everyone, Sarah Booth, Tinkie and CeCe do not envy Sheriff Glory J. Howard.

But one body is not enough for this cozy mystery, and Haines, with her trademark droll humor and intricate plotting, soon has the women involved in more murder and mayhem. Each murder involves poison, and the similarities point equally to Eric Ward, the pharmacist, and to Cosmo, the entomologist, as well as to a former medical doctor, who turned to making herbal medicine potions for sale after he lost his license to practice medicine. But other likely suspects weave and hover through the story, and at least suspect one falls victim.

Eric hires Sarah Booth and Tinkie to prove he is innocent after his arrest for the first murder. But even Sarah Booth begins to question his innocence as the crimes multiply once Eric is released on bail.

As in all of Haines’s books, the plot in Devil’s Bone is deftly constructed with enough twists and turns and one-way dead-ends to intrigue readers. The story line moves fast, but not so fast that Haines doesn’t develop her characters or the lush setting. With a gift for description, Haines ably renders spring in the Deep South: “The counties warmed by the coastal breezes off the Gulf of Mexico spring to life with a palette that takes my breath away. When it comes to the season of showy flowers, the southern most counties are floozies with a celebrated taste for riotous blooms. The Delta, in the center and northern part of the state, has a vastness, a sense of eternity, that is a special beauty.”

It’s hard to imagine how one author can come up with fresh plots for the twenty-two books in the Bones series, or eighty books overall, but Haines does so time and time again, proving once more she is worthy of the many accolades and awards that have come her way for years. When asked about her inspiration for plotlines, Haines said, “While Jitty torments Sarah Booth, I am tormented by the entire cast of Zinnia characters. They are constantly needing attention, and if I fail to sit down and serve them, they disrupt my sleep. This is the life of an author who has spent more than two decades with her willful characters.”

Haines also attributes her early career as having helped her in fiction writing.  “I had a wonderful, exciting life as a young photojournalist. I was exposed to all kinds of people and situations. I covered two state legislatures, educational issues, police, crime, courts. I got to learn a little about a whole lot of things. That exposure is vital to a fiction writer. You have to know a little about a lot of things to create convincing characters. I also learned discipline and to be edited.”

Devil’s Bones, like all the Sarah Booth Delany books, is a delightful, well-crafted peach of a cozy mystery that is sure to charm readers.

Click here to purchase this book: 

Leave a Reply