The trouble with this whole family is, we got Lebruns on the brain.

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Jesse Sutherlin comes home from the trenches of World War I, where

…we captured us a handful of them soldaten and one of them spoke a little American. You know something? He didn’t have any more idea why he was at war than we did. We all had a laugh at that, I tell you.

This perspective leaves him less than inclined to pursue the generational feud between his family, the McAdoos, who occupy the west side of Buffalo Mountain, Virginia, and their sworn enemies, the Lebruns, who occupy the east side. Until his cousin and fellow soldier, Solomon McAdoo, is murdered tending to their grandfather’s still. His entire family, beginning with grandfather Big Tom McAdoo, is ready to fetch their guns and start shooting every Lebrun they see but Jesse says hold on now.

The trouble with this whole family is, we got Lebruns on the brain. Something goes wrong in our lives, it must be the Lebruns causing it. We lose a two bit piece, the Lebruns must have stole it. A tree falls down in the road, Lebruns pushed it over. Bad as they are, man and boy, they ain’t the only skunks in the woodpile. I want them to be guilty as much as the next man, but I want to be sure it’s them before I start throwing lead their way.

And then there is a near miss of a lynching, and another murder, and a third, peaking finally in a high noon showdown on top of Buffalo Mountain that will either reveal the murderer or leave a lot more bodies on the ground.

Ramsay evokes a time and a place so vividly through Jesse’s voice that I didn’t read this novel so much as savor every page. It doesn’t hurt that Jesse’s courtship of Serena Barker (a shirttail member of the Lebrun family, gasp) is charming from beginning to end.

“Women don’t go in for any of those thing except maybe the coins. We’d rather have a pocket square, a book, or a sprig of mint.”

“And they give y’all the vote. Lord have mercy.”

And there is a cameo appearance by itinerant peddler Samuel Schwartz, I’m guessing the grandfather of the hero of Ramsay’s Ike Schwartz series. He sells Jesse a hat Jesse didn’t even know he wanted for every last coin in Jesse’s pocket. Fun.

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Christ and Cleopatra*

Three weeks and counting. If you ‘maniacs run true to form, you’ll swallow it in one big gulp and immediately start asking when the next one’s coming.

Fortunately for you, mine isn’t the only book debuting next month. I direct your attention to a little gem of a mystery written by Frederick Ramsay, coming out from Poisoned Pen Press, called The Eighth Veil.

I trust you’ll remember Salome of the seven veils? Keep her in mind as you read on.

It’s Jerusalem, 26 AD. A serving girl in Herod Antiphas’ palace has been raped and murdered. The local Roman prefect, one Pontius Pilate, summons Gamaliel the Elder to squelch this scandal before it makes Rome’s hand-picked satrap look bad. Or, let us say, any worse than Herod and his promiscuous, fratricidal family have made themselves look already.

Gamaliel, chief rabbi of the Sanhedrin, does his level best to refuse the call to adventure, but Pilate is insistent. He bestows his ring on Gamaliel as a symbol of the Prefect’s absolute authority and charges him with the task of either finding the girl’s murderer, or, even better, a reasonable facsimile thereof so the girl and her story can be buried and forgotten. Gamaliel, alas, has the habit of honesty, and it leads him not to bury the girl but to raise her. Sorry, of course I mean metaphorically, but with even the dead girl’s true name in doubt and a royally sponsored conspiracy of silence surrounding her death, he must first learn who she truly is before he can discover who killed her, and why.

Along the way the reader meets Herod Antiphas himself (I kind of like him, he’s a morally bankrupt sybarite but in the end a useful one), Herod’s bitch of a niece/sister-in-law/wife Herodias, and his alluring step-daughter, the aforementioned Salome, who danced for the head of John the Baptizer and got it. There is also a Greek physician whose wise wry counsel you’ll find as enlightening as does Gamaliel, High Priest Caiaphas, who is much exercised over an illiterate young rabbi from Galilee preaching what Caiaphas sincerely hopes can be proved to be heresy, and the king’s foster brother, Menahim, who like everyone else you will meet herein is more than he seems. Except for the Prefect, Pontius Pilate, who is exactly what he seems, as witness

…all the information I have just supplied cannot be verified and may not bear in any way on the circumstances of the girl’s death. My spies in this matter are less than trustworthy and their reports often contradictory. It is the nature of the politically motivated to spread misinformation more readily than the truth. So, everything I have just said may be completely false and misleading and deliberately so.

I kinda like Pilate, too.

The girl’s body is not the only thing decaying in The Eighth Veil. The ruling family of Judea is destroying itself through internicine warfare, the Jewish church is creating the very seeds of the Christian schism to come, and Rome rots from the head down under a series of corrupt Caesars who pay too little attention to rumors of rebellion in the provinces. It is a period of profound flux that will reshape the world as Gamaliel knows it.

An interesting tale on many levels, and entertaining on every one. And I’m sure any parallels you might find between the world of Gamaliel then and ours today are entirely coincidental.

Click here to reserve your copy from the Poisoned Pen Bookstore.


*You won’t get the title of my review until you read the book.