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THE CHARM STONE
By Lillian Stewart Carl
Five Star Publ./Gale, November 2009 ($25.95)
Reviewed by Shirley Wetzel
Texan Jean Fairbarn, who for the past few years has been an expatriate writer in Scotland, is back on her home turf, America, and back in her element, academia. She and her Scottish sweetheart Alasdair Cameron are on a busman's holiday in historic Williamsburg, Virginia. Jean has an assignment for the magazine she co-owns, Great Scot, about Lady Dunsmore, wife of the last English governor of Virginia, a distant relation of the royal Stewarts. The lady owned a family heirloom, a sixteenth century "witch box" which once had a fabled charm stone. The original box is on display at the DeWitt Wallace Museum in Williamsburg. Alasdair, an ex-police detective who now owns a private security company, Protect and Survive, is hoping to just relax and have a good time playing tourist, but that is not to be.
As Jean is dressing for the formal introduction of the exhibit, Alasdair gets a call from his colleague in Scotland. His firm provides security for Blair Castle, where an exact replica of the witch box, made by a master craftsman from Williamsburg, has been stolen. This is disturbing news -- not that the box was valuable, but that someone broke through his firm's security system to steal it. A woman at the castle accidentally, or so she claimed, opened the door to a private area, setting off an alarm, and in the ensuing commotion someone took the box. The woman's name is Kelly Dingwall, sister to Tim Dingwall. Tim and his wife Sharon are well-known in academic circles for their unorthodox theories: as Jean puts it, they have "dingbats in the belfry." They believe in what they call clandestine history, with secret ciphers and conspiracies a la The DaVinci Code. They have come to Williamsburg looking for the lost charm stone. They claim to have acquired knowledge of its general whereabouts, and their theory about its true importance includes rumors of witchcraft in the Stewart court, with links to Francis Bacon, Shakespeare, and other assorted nonsense. As part of her assignment, Jean has to interview the Dingbats -- er, Dingwalls, who seem to believe she supports their point of view.
Williamsburg is not ancient by European standards, but there are plenty of ghosties and ghoulies and things that go bump in the night. Jean and Alasdair share the ability to sense, and sometimes see, dead people, who might be annoying but seldom dangerous. The charming cottage they are staying in, once the kitchen of the governor's mansion comes with its own resident gray lady whose main task seems to be moving an antique bottle from place to place. It was found buried under the hearth when the building was moved to its present location. Burial of witch bottles and hiding shoes in the walls were common practices in colonial times.
Williamsburg at night is especially spooky around Halloween, and some of the ghosts are not centuries old. One suspicious death occurs just as Jean and Alasdair arrive in town, and another takes place minutes before Jean stumbles across the scene. The detective in charge of both cases, Stephanie Venegas, is a hard-nosed cop with little regard for the input Jean and Alasdair try to give her, until she checks on them and finds out that there might just be some validity in what they're telling her. Grudgingly, she allows the couple to help her with the investigation. The deaths may be crimes of passion, greed, professional jealously, or perhaps they have something to do with witchcraft. Most of the elite group gathered for the dedication of the witch box exhibit could have one or more of those motives for murder.
Jean and Alasdair have been together for several months now, and she is wondering if the bloom has gone off the rose. He seems distant and uncommunicative, and she's mad at herself for daring to take another chance on romance at the ripe old age of forty. She sees their two toothbrushes in a glass, leaning away from each other, as a symbol of where the relationship is going. Ms. Carl is skilled at crafting tiny details that speak volumes. Some, like the toothbrushes, are poignant. Others are just fun. Jean is in no way a fashionista, but she does admire how the strands of silver in her auburn locks coordinate with the silver threads running through her black and auburn dress. Like those silver threads, the author intertwines several plot lines seamlessly, deftly depicts the beauty and mystery of Williamsburg, and weaves in an accurate, interesting, and well-researched history lesson, creating a beautiful tapestry.
This title is scheduled to be released on November 18, 2009. It may be pre-ordered now from online booksellers.
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