Magalis novel is first of whodunit series

Cover art for The Body in the Butter Churn was done by Lila Winstead of Glover.

copyright the Chronicle, July 15, 2012

The Body in the Butter Churn:  a Green Mountain Whodunit, by Elaine Magalis, self-published, softcover, 280 pages, $11.95, available online at www.createspace.com/3715414 or www.amazon.com

Reviewed by Bethany M. Dunbar

Anyone looking for a summer mystery to read should take a look at Elaine Magalis’ new book, The Body in the Butter Churn:  a Green Mountain Whodunit.

As you might discern from the title, the opening scene is pretty grim when a group of people find an old lady’s very recently murdered remains crammed into a butter churn.  The butter churn is in a museum patterned after the Old Stone House Museum in Brownington, where Ms. Magalis used to work.  In fact the book is dedicated to “The Old Stone House and all who have loved her.”

No murder ever took place there so far as I know; in fact, not even a crime of any note.  Nevertheless, the kids I worked with knew the place was not quite right:  they caught sight of ghosts walking in the hallway; they knew the past was more alive there than the present.

These days the present is more alive than it probably was then — still there is no doubt the old building has an aura of mystery about it.  Who knows what might have happened there over all the years?

Ms. Magalis created two memorable characters in The Body in the Butter Churn.  They are 12-year-old Alex Churchill and Tasha Mulholland, an older woman, who pair up to solve the crime.  Alex is a bit of a nerd who helps with odd jobs at the museum, and Tasha Mulholland is the elderly caretaker who plays the cello to relax and teaches Alex a vocabulary word each day.

Mrs. Mulholland’s son is a police officer.  He doesn’t recruit the duo to help on purpose, but they start to think about the circumstances and the people involved, get curious about certain aspects of the situation, and before you know it they are a team of amateur detectives, flying under the radar which turns out to be a good place to be to find out certain details.  It’s the old Columbo phenomenon.  The television detective’s signature style was a ruffled up raincoat and shabby haircut, which belied a brilliant mind who shuffled his way into solving case after case, accompanied by a pet cockatoo.  Most murderers would not suspect an elderly lady and boy on a bicycle of being a threat — and therein lays the pair’s chief strength.

Although this is her first murder mystery, Ms. Magalis is not a new writer.  In 1973 she wrote a book called Conduct Becoming to a Woman:  Bolted Doors and Burgeoning Missions, published by the United Methodist Church — a history of women in missions in that church.  That book was republished in 2003.  She is the author of a blog about art and writing at an older age called Late Fruit, which people can read at latefruit.wordpress.com.

Her self-published book is graced with cover art by local artist Lila Winstead, and professionally edited and proofread by some of her friends including the Chronicle’s own Jeannine Young.

Ms. Magalis’ writing is vivid but clean, simple and satisfying.  Here is her description of the daughter of the murder victim:

Ms. Mulholland knocked and Mrs. Hamilton’s daughter swung the door open and stared down at Alex.  Dressed in a not-quite-shocking purple kimono, with red hair to her waist and a big chin like Jay Leno, she reminded him of the redheaded witch in a book about English werewolves he’d found in the library.  She didn’t look like Mrs. Hamilton at all.  Just as well.

Later, in a conversation about the eBay bids for what turns out to be a painting with some critical clues to the crime, one of the characters mentions that the bids have gone quite high.  The man turns to his wife and asks for her confirmation:

“Aren’t they, my dear?”

“They are high,” Abigail managed to say, her thin frame wavering like a shallow planting by the car.

Ms. Magalis’ debut mystery — in what is going to become a series — is well worth picking up.  A good opportunity for it is coming up — she will do a reading at the Galaxy Bookshop in Hardwick on Thursday, July 19 at 6 p.m.

contact Bethany M. Dunbar at bethany@bartonchronicle.com

For more book reviews, visit the Reviews page.

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