March 22, 2010
A recently frozen arm with the hand attached launches the main plot in Whispers In The Dark, Eleanor Taylor Bland’s ninth novel in her Marti MacAlister series.
Within an hour after the discovery, the coroner reports the existence three arms and hands were found in the past. The four arms and hands date back to 1979, 1980, and 1994, and all four have arsenic in them. Blue paint on two of the hands and silver that photographers use on one suggest the owners were probably artists. The case gives Marti a glimpse of the dark side of the artistic community in Lincoln Prairie and provides her the opportunity to solve her first cold case.
Once she and her partner Matthew (Vik) Jessenovik establish that the owners of the arms and hands were artist, they begin their search for clues in the Lincoln Prairie historical society to get the names of local artist. Historical society volunteer, Nan Conser, gives them the history of the Artist Guild of which Lucy Carlisle, Arlene Johns, and Nan are members. Three nonmembers, Jimmy Binslow (Native American), Dexter Penwell (African American), and Carrie Pinkham (deaf African American), were invited to show their works when the guild held exhibitions but were excluded from membership. Nan Conser was also excluded at one time because she was from the wrong social class. She is added to the suspect list when Marti and Vik learn how she became a member.
Based on what the brother of a deceased artist tells her about the guild, Marti’s thinks
"The art guild sounded like a close-knit group, one that protected its image of itself and didn't allow anyone in who did not conform to that. They also sounded competitive, perhaps even petty. Dexter Penwell was just a sign painter, a cartoonist; Carrie Pinkham was just an imitation Grandma Moses-, and Jimmy Binslow? An amateur shutterbug maybe. Insiders and the excluded."
The two things the Guild members have in come is the exclusion from the Guild artists belonging to the wrong race or class, and their mothers pushed each of them to excel, the consequences of which, for one of them, are fatal.
Marti’s friend Sharon’s problem with her new husband is a second plot that could stand alone as a deadly romance adventure story and is only thematically connected to the main plot through Sharon’s mother who rejected her.
Sharon, believing she has met “Mr. Wonderful,” marries DeVonte Lutrell after knowing him for only a month. Before she goes with him to his home in the Bahamas, we get the back story involving her mother, Rayveena, a prostitute and drug addict who had Sharon when she was twelve years old. The neighborhood people raised Sharon, especially Marti’s mother. When we meet Rayveena, she is dying from AIDS and wants nothing to do with Sharon. Thus, we are to believe that Sharon is irresponsible and sometimes fickle because of a lack of a mother’s love.
Unaware of the nightmare that awaits her in the Bahamas, Sharon leaves Lisa behind and doesn’t tell her or Marti she is married. What she doesn’t know is that she is the latest in a long line of women whom DeVonte has married and killed for their money. The excitement rises when he tricks Lisa into coming to the Bahamas without Sharon’s knowledge. To his surprise, DeVonte discovers Lisa is smarter than her mother and the cat and mouse game between them begins when she escapes from him. To heighten the suspense most of the action in the Bahamas occurs in a hurricane.
Whispers in the Dark is enjoyable, and the two plot lines are thematically connected in that both reflect how mothers affect the lives of their daughters. The slow pace of the four arms plot line nicely contrasts with the faster pace of the Sharon vs DeVonte plot line.
The novel however is not one of Bland’s best. The second plot line reads as if it is to be a TV movie.