Book Review: The Mortician’s Daughter

My copy of the book.

When it comes to fiction, I like reading virtually anything, if it’s interesting and well-written (or written well-enough; an interesting story can overcome suboptimal writing), but there is something about a whodunit that is like the first cup of hot chocolate in the winter with those absurdly large marshmallows. It’s oddly comforting to figure out who the killer is in a book. So, I love a good whodunit! My “hot chocolate” this weekend was Elizabeth Bloom’s 2006 novel, The Mortician’s Daughter.

Ginny, a detective in the Special Victims Unit of the New York City Police Department, is facing an internal affairs investigation into her association with a known dirty cop, when she receives a 2 a.m. phone call from her childhood friend, Sonya, that Danny is dead. Danny is Sonya’s son, although we’d later learn that Danny is actually Paula’s, Sonya’s older sister, son, but she left Danny in Sonya’s care and presumably ditched town. Given that she seems to be on the fast track to no career in the city, Ginny returns to her old New England hometown, with nostalgia wafting from every corner, including the sensual wafting coming from her high school sweetheart, Jimmy.

The set-up of Bloom’s book reminded me of Mare of Easttown (even though the book came first), where a hard-nosed female detective is trying to uncover a murder in a small town while dealing with her own complicated crap. Ginny isn’t polished, like Mare wasn’t, because she enjoys highly fattening burgers from the local burger joint and hooking up with the aforementioned Jimmy in Danny’s bed, no less. But I like the lack of polish! She’s capable is the point (and more capable than the incompetent local PD), and I also like that Ginny was approaching the case as more or less a civilian since her NYPD badge wouldn’t hold any water in the small town. Although I do find it interesting, now that I’m writing this, that Ginny was tasked with helping her friend solve her son’s homicide when she herself didn’t have experience in that; she was with the SVU, not homicide.

As the book’s mystery unfurled, we learned two key facts: a.) Danny was obsessed with learning about his mother, Paula, and what happened to her; and b.) Paula, the book doesn’t shy away from reminding us, was um, promiscuous with the older men, or any aged-man, around town. Once those two facts came to light, we can started seeing a motive for why someone might want to kill Danny: to prevent him from learning about the fate of his mother. Once that was the case, I had two suspects in mind: 1.) Coach Hank, the high school track coach, primarily because it wasn’t hard to imagine that Paula got her claws into one of the school’s “older men,” and because he tried to steer Ginny off his case by fingering Jimmy as a potential suspect; and 2.) Pete, Sonya’s husband and high school sweetheart. I was right on the first, and partially right on the second.

Coach Hank did kill Danny (and a drug dealer Danny was having sex with; unbeknownst to his family, he was gay or questioning) because he did have an affair with Paula and got her pregnant. Once he learned Danny was his kid, and then he found Danny having gay sex with the drug dealer, he lost his mind and killed him. Pete also had an affair with Paula, but he was infertile, so he couldn’t be Danny’s biological dad.

But there’s more! Because Bloom had a few tricks up her sleeve to try to throw us off of Coach Hank’s trail. It turned out, Paula didn’t run away from the town; she never left because she was murdered while pregnant with a second child. Paula kept “trophies” like a dang serial killer of all of her sexual conquests apparently, and one of those was a custom rosary. That led Ginny to confronting the local priest, who also had sex with Paula and confessed to killing her. Ginny realized, though, the priest confessed because he felt guilty, but wasn’t actually guilty. Instead, it was some high-falutin local banker, who also had sex with Paula, who killed her, then tried to kill Ginny when she was figuring out the case. When all this comes to a head, our up-to-that-point capable and smart protagonist let her guard down long enough for the priest to steal her gun and shoot and kill the banker. That part was a little too much for me. It was enough that the priest was wrapped up in the Paula scandal, but to be fair, Bloom’s clever way of explaining the priest doing the murderous deed was “an eye for an eye.”

The big city cop returning to her Podunk town to solve a murder isn’t a unique premise, but it’s a winning formula, nonetheless! And Bloom wrote it exceedingly well, where the small town wasn’t as pristine as nostalgic memories warranted, where there were fissures everywhere, where those who we once knew in childhood turned out completely different in adulthood, and where even in a small town, we don’t quite know everyone like we think we do. The gun-toting-priest moment aside, Ginny was also a great character because of her capabilities to cerebrally figure things out, which I appreciated those recap moments, to rise to the challenges that faced her (like having her brakes cut, nearly having her throat slashed, and dealing with a love-sick puppy of an old high school sweetheart), and her basic attempt to do the right thing, even up against opposition from some bumbling corners of that Podunk town.

If you also never tire of sipping from the “hot chocolate” well of a clever whodunit, I’d recommend this one!

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