Flowers on the Wall

I love Carol Goodman’s work.

I don’t remember which of her books I read first; I am thinking it was The Sea of Lost Girls, but that may be wrong (probably is; my memory is for shit these days) but I DO know I first met her in person at the HarperCollins cocktail party at Bouchercon in St. Petersburg, and she’s just as marvelous as a person as she is a writer. Since then I’ve delved into her canon of brilliant books–have yet to come across one that is even slightly disappointing–and each one makes my fandom flame burn even more brightly.

And then in Minneapolis, over lunch with a few friends at that wonderful Irish pub near the hotel, I discovered the clincher: she is also a Dark Shadows fan. She even joked, “I’ve realized that most of my books are really about Barnabas Collins and Maggie Evans”–which made me think even more deeply about how much of an influence the show was on my own writing (Bury Me in Shadows owes a HUGE debt to the show). She has a new book coming out this summer, which is very exciting–I have that weird thing about never wanting to have read everyone’s entire backlist, so there’s always one more book for them to read without me having to wait to get my hands on it–and during my trip to Alabama for the First Sunday in May I listened to The Ghost Orchid, which was so good that when I got home that Sunday night, I grabbed my headphones and listened to the final thirty minutes of the book while unpacking and doing things around the apartment.

I came to Bosco for the quiet.

That’s what it’s famous for.

The silence reigns each day between the hours of nine and five by order of a hundred0year-old decree made by a woman who lies dead beneath the rosebushes–a silence guarded by four hundred acres of wind sifting through white pines with a sound like a mother saying hush. The silence stretches into the still, warm afternoon until it melts into the darkest spot of the garden where spiders spin their tunnel-shaped webs in the box-hedge maze. Just before dusk the wind, released from the pines, blows into the dry pipes of the marble fountain, swirls into the grotto, and creeps up the hill., into the gaping mouths of the satyrs, caressing the breasts of the sphinxes, snaking up the central fountain allée, and onto the terrace, where it exhales its resin- and copper-tinged breath out onto the glasses and crystal decanters laid out on the balustrade.

Even when we come down to drinks on the terrace there’s always a moment, while the ice settles in the silver bowls and we brush the yellow pine needles off the rattan chairs, when it seems like the silence will never be broken. When it seems that the silence might continue to accumulate–like the golden pine needles that pad the paths through the box-hedge maze and the crumbling marble steps and choke the mouths of the satyrs and fill the pipes of the fountain–and finally be too deep to disturb.

Then someone laughs and clinks his glass against another’s, and says…

“Cheers. Here’s to Aurora Latham and Bosco.”

“Here, here,” we all chime into the evening, sending the echoes of our voices rolling down the terraces lawn like brightly colored croquet balls from some long-ago lawn party.

“God, I’ve never gotten so much work done,” Bethesda Graham says, as if testing the air’s capacity to hold a longer sentence or two.

Carol Goodman’s books are, above and beyond anything else you might want to say about them, incredibly literate and smart. She reminds me of Mary Stewart in that way; Stewart’s novels, often dismissed as “romantic suspense” (don’t even get me started on that misogyny), were smart, clever and incredibly literate, with Shakespearean references and quotes and allusions to classical literature. Goodman’s works are also the same; Goodman’s background in classics scholarship is utilized in every one of her books but not in a way that feels intrusive or showing off. It’s all integrated into the story and not only moves the story forward but deepens and enriches the characters as well as the plot, which is not easy to do. Her books are often built around some sort of academic/intellectual backdrop, from boarding schools to small colleges to actual archaeological digs (The Night Villa is absolutely exquisite; superb in every way), and her heroines, aren’t pushovers (as in most “romantic suspense”) but strong and smart and driven, if haunted by their own insecurities and past failures. Goodman is also not afraid to cross the line over into supernatural occurances, either; the previous one I’d read had a touch of the woo-woo, as does The Ghost Orchid, but it’s not intrusive and it actually plays out so honestly and realistically that you don’t question it.

The main character of the book is a young woman named Ellis Brooks. Ellis is a young author-to-be who is working on a novel based on what is called “the Blackwell Affair.” She had already written and published a short story based on an old pamphlet she found; the book research makes her a natural to be chosen for a residency at Bosco, an old estate in upstate New York that has become an artist’s colony, sort of like Breadloaf, but for a much more extended stay and for fewer artists. “The Blackwell Affair” actually took place at Bosco, when the original mistress of the estate, Aurora Latham, brought an experienced medium named Corinth Blackwell to Bosco to hold seances to try to reach the spirits of her dead children–any number of whom were either stillbirths or died shortly after being born; she had four children who lived but lost three of them to a diphtheria outbreak the year before. Corinth Blackwell and the only surviving Latham child disappeared one night after a seance; hence “the Blackwell Affair.” As Ellis does her research and gets to know her fellow artists better, she becomes more and more aware that the past at Bosco doesn’t rest, and the untold stories of the past must be unearthed before everyone at Bosco can be safe.

Goodman is also a master of the dueling timeline; one in the past and one in the present, and weaves the stories together so intricately that I marveled at the mastery, as the present day characters wonder about something and then we get the answer in the past. There are so many secrets, so many lies, so many spirits; but as always with the best ghost stories, the past is finally laid to rest when the truth is exposed.

I loved this book, and it reminded me not only of Dark Shadows (knowing she’s a fan I’ll always see it in her work now) but also of Barbara Michaels’ best along with Mary Stewart. Can’t wait to dig into another Goodman novel!

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