“Sister Louise LaSalle, two murders in Briar Coast in three months—and you’re on site for both of them.” So pronounces deputy sheriff Ted Tate upon arriving at the scene of the crime in this second mystery by author Olivia Matthews.
Welcome to Briar Coast, a not-so-sleepy town in Upstate New York. The sisters of the College of St. Hermione of Ephesus are planning for their congregation’s upcoming advent retreat, an event scheduled to take place at the Briar Coast Cabin Resort where all is not well.
The story begins with Sister Lou and Sister Marianna meeting with resort co-owner Autumn Tassler. It’s a contentious meeting. As is mentioned later, “Sister Marianna lived to argue.” She isn’t happy with Autumn’s suggestions for the retreat’s menu. Caught in the middle, Sister Lou suggests a survey of the congregation’s menu preference as a peaceful compromise.
Sister Marianna grudgingly agrees, and as the sisters are leaving, she nearly forgets her silk scarf. Ever observant, Sister Lou notices this. She also notices a man and woman waiting for Autumn. “The temperature in the room dropped markedly when Autumn noticed them.”
What Sister Lou isn’t privy to is a tense meeting that follows between Autumn and her co-owner Rita Morris who is all too eager to sell the resort to businessman Montgomery Crane. Autumn is firm in not wanting to sell, and the first chapter ends with Autumn realizing “Rita wouldn’t be opposed to her dropping dead.”
Most rules of the mystery genre would dictate that the crime should occur within the first three chapters (or some would argue the first!) so as to hook the reader. Yet some of the best mysteries are stronger by taking the time to set up the suspects and motives before the murder. And here we’re given a solid bevy of possible suspects with an array of motives.
There’s Gary Hargreaves, the resort’s director of finance, whose financial report numbers don’t jive with the bank statements, suggesting someone might be skimming money from the resort. But who? Gary? What about Rita who’s all too eager to sell “for the money.” Or it’s suggested it could be one of Autumn’s other employees like head chef Urban Rodgers.
Later, in front of Sister Lou, Autumn’s cousin barges in and accuses Autumn of having an affair with her husband. “You’ve already destroyed your marriage. I will kill you before I let you ruin mine!”
Of course, Autumn’s ex-husband isn’t necessarily out of the picture nor is his current wife, Isabella. Isabella confronts Autumn about alimony payments, insisting Roy—Autumn’s ex—can’t afford them anymore.
So things aren’t looking so good on Monday morning when Sister Lou arrives for an appointment with Autumn only to find the office door locked. Sister Lou checks with Rita Morris and Autumn’s administrative assistant, Kelsey Bennett, but neither woman has apparently seen Autumn since the preceding Friday. After checking Autumn’s ransacked cabin (which happens to be on the resort’s premises), they unlock her office and find her sprawled on her executive chair dead.
Of course, Sister Marianna comes under suspicion because her scarf—which has gone missing—may have been used to kill Autumn. And someone seems all too willing to frame her. “The deputies want to believe our congregation is somehow involved in this tragedy and someone is feeding their conspiracy,” notes Sister Lou.
The deputies’ seeming grudge stems from Sister Lou and her congregation’s involvement in a prior case. Dr. Maurice Jordan, a controversial theology professor and close friend of Sister Lou, was invited to speak at the College of St. Hermione of Ephesus and is later found dead in his hotel room in the first Sister Lou mystery, Mayhem & Mass.
In fact, Maurice’s death weighs heavily on Sister Lou’s mind. There are numerous moments that pull “her back to the Sleep Ease Inn Hotel, back to the room in which Maurice had been murdered.” These references are deftly handled without being too spoiler-y (for those reading out of sequence). And they are a refreshing inclusion. It’s more natural and believable that such events—occurring a few scant months before the present—are still an influence on the characters and aren’t forgotten.
Sister Lou ultimately solves Autumn’s murder when she makes an important realization. A trap is set, and using her jogging skills, Sister Lou apprehends the killer. But she doesn’t do it all on her own. She’s ably assisted by a couple characters with subplots of their own.
Sister Lou’s nephew, Chris LaSalle is the vice president of advancement at the College working on a campaign to freeze the college’s tuition for four years and increase scholarships through donations. A project that comes under threat when skittish donors become concerned about the congregation’s ties to the murder.
Chris is romantically interested in Sharelle “Shari”Henson, an investigative reporter for the local newspaper. Besides reporting on the murder of Autumn Tassler, Shari has been asked by her editor in chief” to snoop around the mayor’s office and town hall” and a potential scandal in the making. Shari, in particular, accompanies Sister Lou in interviewing suspects while at the same time getting the latest scoop for The Briar Coast Telegraph.
Peril & Prayer is a engaging, well-plotted cozy mystery that would appeal to readers of Ralph McInerny’s Father Dowling mysteries and James Runcie’s Grantchester Mysteries (or fans of their respective TV series) as well as readers of Jan Karon’s Mitford series.
Olivia Matthews is the pseudonym of bestselling author Patricia Sargeant, who also writes under the pen name Regina Hart. Peril & Prayer is available now in print and ebook.