In The Family Vault, the first novel in the Sarah Kelling/Max Bittersohn series by Charlotte MacLeod, dotty old Great-Uncle Frederick has finally kicked the bucket, but refusing to be buried near his late wife, he has ordered in his will that his body be interred in the historic family vault in Beacon Hill, Boston, which, when opened up, reveals a brick wall not in the plans and the body of a burlesque dancer with rubies in her teeth. Thus begins the wild ride that the heretofore tame life of Sarah Kelling, becomes.
Born into the Boston Brahman Kellings, a family so upper crust that they can afford not to care what anyone outside the family thinks of them, Sarah is married to Alexander, a man twice her age and her late father’s best friend, not to mention her own cousin. Kellings almost always marry Kellings to keep the money in the family. She lives more like a daughter than a wife with Alexander and his deaf and blind, but decidedly not helpless, mother, Sarah’s Aunt Caroline, who rules her world with a vindictive iron thumb.
With the discovery of this body and the revelation that the dancer had once been the girl whom Alexander chased after, Sarah gets involved in trying to solve this mystery. Curiously, an art expert named Max Bittersohn, who wants Sarah to do some drawings for a book on famous jewels he is writing, keeps popping up. So, too, do mentions of rubies, in particular a complete ruby set passed down from father to son in Alexander’s family but controlled completely by his mother.
I have read all of the books in each of MacLeod’s four very disparate series several times, and The Family Vault is a much darker read than any of MacLeod’s other books, yet despite my proclivity for light mystery fiction, I consider this book one of MacLeod’s very best. The plot is fascinating, with enough creative angles to keep the reader in suspense, and the revelations that arise throughout the book keep one sharp.
But I consider Charlotte MacLeod’s true genius to be in the depth of her characters. Well-rounded and diverse in nature, despite the fact that most come from the same in-bred family, each one comes to life in a special way. Sarah in particular grows from being a doormat to forcing Alexander to take her seriously as an adult and then exhibiting strong independence.
The audio version of this book is available through Audible and narrated by Andi Arndt, who does a nice job of narrating, though not anything too remarkable. Frustratingly, three books in this series are available on audio only in cassette format, and all three are narrated by Mary Peiffer, whom I believe does a better job of performing the novels than Arndt. I wonder if the fact that these books have not been made available in digital format could be related to the different narrators.
As a single book and as the introduction to an excellent series, The Family Vault is a great read. Published in 1979, it gives a good sense of the lives of those considered the Boston Brahman and has such great plot developments and characters that I heartily give it five stars.
The Family Vault by Charlotte MacLeod is available now. To order from Amazon, click the link in the title. You may also find it in your local bookstore or library.