Preprandial drinks at a family estate. Well-heeled people who dress for dinner. A dark and stormy night. Debut novelist Tessa Wegert knows that these are tropes of a certain kind of murder mystery. At one point in Death in the Family, the narrator, detective Shana Merchant, is addressing the house's occupants and "giving them my best Poirot." The trick of Death in the Family is that Wegert is not only in control of the book's allusive material, but she has freshened it by fusing it with a contemporary thriller's grit.
One autumn Saturday, New York State's Bureau of Criminal Investigation receives a phone call from the caretaker of an estate on a private island in the St. Lawrence River. The caretaker is reporting a murder, although there's no body: just the bloodied bedding of a missing person, 26-year-old Jasper Sinclair. Detective Shana Merchant and her partner go to the island and question the caretaker, six Sinclair family members and lovers, and their host, the ancient Sinclair matriarch, whose passing, Shana notes, would mean that someone will inherit a mint.
If Death in the Family's cast and concerns recall an Agatha Christie novel, Shana's flashbacks to something harrowing that happened to her a year earlier bring to mind The Silence of the Lambs. Death in the Family augurs well for the projected Shana Merchant series, which will hopefully continue to provide clever plots foiled by Wegert's unsinkable lead detective, who may withhold information from the reader, but no more than Miss Marple ever did. --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer