ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Mary Oertel-Kirschner’s second Santa Fe mystery with Blanche Harriman is a mystery even before you get to the first page.
The mystery begins on the front cover with the title and the image. The book is awkwardly titled “Death of the Head,” a phrase leaving the reader to head-scratch its meaning. “Head” refers to the headmistress of the fictional Cather School, a private elementary school for girls named for Willa Cather. Headmistress Elaine Hockman is shot to death at her home.
Then there’s the cover image of a woman looking through a magnifying glass at a painting on a wall. The reader learns the woman is Blanche, whose investigations into alleged art fraud and Hockman’s death converge.
Also, notice the sporty outfit Blanche is wearing – a blue blouse with large bluish-white polka dots, blue slacks and two-toned yellow sneakers.
It’s a lighter-blue version of what she has on for a meeting with a police detective. Many scenes contain paragraphs about Blanche’s attention to fashion – the appropriate clothes and the right accessories and makeup, for different scenes.
On the very first page, Blanche is looking for clothes to wear for a Cather school board meeting. She’s drawn to “a pumpkin-colored coat dress with buttons made of water buffalo horn” in her closet. Of course, the coat dress would go well with her hair, “a tousle of auburn-leaning-toward-flame curls.”
With the fashion statements in place, the 78-year-old widow Blanche, sometimes leaning on the sage advice of friends, sniffs around the apparent fraudulent mismanagement of Cather’s art collection.
A fill-in Cather board chair and an ally of the late headmistress, Blanche must deal with the emotions and politics of the board and staff concerning Hockman’s death, the school’s reputation in the community, the search for a replacement headmistress and the value of the prized collection of artwork donated by many of Cather’s graduating classes.
Donated art includes paintings by well-known early- and mid-20th century artists of northern New Mexico – Jozef Bakos of Santa Fe Cinco Pintores fame, Victor Higgins of the Taos Society of Artists, and famous modernists Georgia O’Keeffe and John Marin.
Blanche loves to eat, especially with her beau, Frank Zanders, a retired Santa Fe banker. In one scene, Blanche and Frank are off to dine at a Mom and Pop restaurant which has, Frank declares, the best green chile cheeseburgers in town. The anticipation of the meal and the detailed description of it – served with calabacitas and papitas – take up way too much space.
The author finds humor in two “ancient, skinny sisters,” the busybody Balleens, who live in the same retirement community as Blanche and Frank. One sister, Flori, throws out the rumor about the cause of Hockman’s killing: “We heard her husband hired a hit man so he could be with his lover.” When Blanche asks where she heard that, Flori replies, “I can’t reveal my sources.”
Oertel-Kirschner makes fun of haughtiness. A woman who runs the lower grades of a private school in New York checks out the headmistress vacancy at Cather:
“It’s refreshing,” she says, “to see such a nurturing environment where people really care about each other as human beings.”
Laugh? I thought I’d snarl. Keep in mind this is a “cozy” mystery, meaning Blanche and Frank may squeeze hands or give each other a peck on the cheek, but there’s no sex. And cozies don’t stand for graphic descriptions of violence.