Book Review: The Pavilion

Book Review: The Pavilion by Hilda Lawrence (also published as “The Pavilion of Death”)

When Regan Carr’s mother passes away from illness, the young woman is hard-pressed.  Her part-time job as a small town librarian for $25 a week (roughly equivalent to an $8/hr job in 2017) is not sufficient to cover the doctor’s bills and other expenses of her mother’s final days, let alone allow her to live in any sort of comfort.  So when a letter arrives from her distant (and wealthy) cousin Hurst Herald, asking her to live with him, Regan decides to give it a try.

The Pavilion

But when Regan arrives with her meager possessions, Hurst Herald is dead.  And he evidently hadn’t told the rest of the family she was coming, so the relatives view Regan with suspicion.  There are those who seem glad to see her; Miss Etta, a kleptomaniac pensioner who was an old friend of Hurst’s, and the Crain sisters, elderly maids who appreciate Regan’s kindness.  The relatives warm up a bit when she proves her arrival was expected, and Regan is given an out-of-the-way room for the moment.

This novel is in the Southern Gothic tradition, featuring a dysfunctional family with dark secrets living in a fine mansion that is beginning to decay.  It’s a slow burn in many, many ways–it’s halfway through before Regan realizes that the family’s history of tragic accidents doesn’t include any actual accidents.   Much depends on her suppressed memories of what happened in the pavilion out back of the house during her childhood visit.

Regan is a petite woman, who looks even more childlike than her age of twenty-two.  A running gag is her bunny slippers, a rare splurge purchase for the poverty-stricken lady.  In a more action-packed story, she would be the damsel in distress type, but the menace here is more subtle, hidden between the lines of seemingly innocuous conversations.

The slow burn serves the story well most of the way through.  There’s a particularly chilling scene where one character’s previously comical behavior is revealed to be the result of psychological abuse as a child.  This does, however, mean that the last chapter needs to wrap everything up in a bit of a rush, with the murderer’s identity confirmed by elimination in the final paragraphs.

The viewpoint is mostly Regan’s, but we do have moments seeing the thoughts of other characters.  For example, one of the maids daydreaming about working for a less strict employer so she wouldn’t have to set her alarm clock an hour ahead to keep her job, and worrying every day that they will notice the difficulty she has getting up the stairs.  (Towards the end she talks about her and her sister’s fear of ending their days in a charity ward.)

There’s a touch of period racism; the family has no black servants because (the housekeeper thinks) they’re superstitious and don’t react well to summons from empty rooms.  African-Americans appear in scene descriptions, but none are relevant to the plot.

This is an atmospheric book that will reward the patient reader.  My 1960s copy is in rough shape; you might be able to find the 1980s reprint in better condition.

Book Review: Midnight at the Mansion

Book Review: Midnight at the Mansion by Steven K. Smith

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was requested or received.

Midnight at the Mansion

Brothers Sam and Derek, and Sam’s friend Caitlin, are enjoying a day at Maymont, a historic estate in Richmond, Virginia.  A man Sam and Caitlin meets seems very interested in the estate’s bald eagles.  That same man later is seen running away from the estate, chased by two dangerous-looking fellows.  He drops his cellphone in his flight, and before it goes dead, it gives the children a cryptic clue.

Now the kids must unravel a threat to the eagles, and also to themselves.   Their parents wouldn’t approve of putting themselves in danger…but surely convincing Caitlin’s father to take them hiking wouldn’t hurt.

This is the fifth book in The Virginia Mysteries series of children’s mysteries.  It provides some perilous thrills for young readers (aimed at about fifth-graders like Sam & Caitlin; Derek’s a touch older) while teaching them a little bit about Virginia history and landmarks.

There isn’t a whole lot of actual mystery here–book-smart Caitlin figures out pretty much exactly what’s going on, and only their worries about not being taken seriously prevent the kids from simply telling a responsible adult who would end the book’s plot about halfway through.  Derek’s physical bravery gets them in trouble about as often as it gets them out; Sam is more cautious, but rises to the occasion when the crunch comes.

The crooks behave rather stupidly to give the children a chance at cracking the case; masterminds these are not.

There’s a bit of talk about endangered species, and a passing reference to race-based classism.  A Confederate-themed biker gang appears as good guys; parents may want to discuss with young readers why that might come off as uncomfortable to some people.

Derek teases Sam frequently about various things, including his friendship with Caitlin.  Sam and Caitlin themselves are just good friends so far as this book goes.

This book is self-published, but well put together.  It’s double-spaced for reading ease, I didn’t spot any typos, and the cover is appropriate for the story–more symbolic than it might first appear, but that is definitely the Maymont Mansion.

Recommended primarily for kids living in the Virginia area, or who have relatives living there, but it should suit any fifth-grade mystery lover.

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