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O' Artful Death: A Mystery

O' Artful Death: A Mystery

by Sarah Stewart Taylor

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Newcomer Sarah Stewart Taylor delivers a compelling and atmospheric cozy mystery that introduces Sweeney St. George, an art historian in Boston with a special interest in the art of death. Sweeney becomes interested in Byzantium, Vermont, an art colony that flourished in the late nineteenth century, when she comes upon a photograph of the striking gravestone of a girl who drowned, and may have been murdered, in 1890. The stone is in a tiny cemetery surrounded by other beautiful, if unremarkable, headstones, some dating back hundreds of years. But the unsigned sculpture that marks this young woman's grave is of extremely high quality and the artist is unrecognizable.

Sweeney is soon hooked, not only on the mystery of who created the beautiful sculpture but also on the details of the events surrounding the girl's death. When the friend who showed her the gravestone invites Sweeney to visit his relatives in Byzantium for Christmas, she jumps at the chance, knowing full well that the girl's murder has achieved the status of mythology in the town and hoping she'll be able to uncover new information. But by the time they arrive, her interest in the girl and the sculpture has gotten around town and, in fact, seems to have disturbed a killer. For not long after Sweeney arrives, one of the girl's descendants is murdered, shot and left lying in the cemetery.

Taylor has written a remarkably accomplished debut mystery in the traditional cozy vein, and she's sure to win over legions of fans with O' Artful Death.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781429909419
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/01/2007
Series: Sweeney St. George Mysteries , #1
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 306,394
File size: 441 KB

About the Author

Sarah Stewart Taylor, an avid gravestone buff, is a freelance journalist in Vermont. Her great-grandmother belonged to a New Hampshire art colony. O' Artful Death is her first novel.
SARAH STEWART TAYLOR is the author of the Sweeney St. George series and the Maggie D'arcy series. Taylor grew up on Long Island in New York and was educated at Middlebury College in Vermont and Trinity College in Dublin. She lived in Dublin, Ireland in the mid-90s and she now lives with her family on a farm in Vermont where they raise sheep and grow blueberries.

Read an Excerpt

O'Artful Death

By Sarah Stewart Taylor

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2003 Sarah Stewart Taylor
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-0941-9



The colony at Byzantium was a paean to the beautiful, a monument to the idea that one could live more beautifully in the country.

For the artists, who flocked north come summer for the heady mixture of solitude and like-minded companionship, it was a place where, above everything, aesthetic perfection reigned.

Beauty reigned in the rolling hillsides of the Vermont countryside, it reigned in the silhouette of the staid, silent mountain, it reigned in the graceful, lovely homes and gardens and in everything the artists did. Birth, celebration, even death — all were made beautiful in Byzantium.

Muse of the Hills: The Byzantium Colony, 1860–1956


* * *

THE GIRL'S NUDE BODY lay in the boat, her dead eyes staring heavenward, her long hair coiling strangely to the ground. One graceful arm was thrown across her breasts, covering them carelessly in a gesture more flirtatious than modest; the other arm trailed limply. Unmarred and impossibly smooth, the bloodless surface of her skin looked soft as soap.

Or soft as marble, thought Sweeney St. George as she flipped through the photographs she'd found lying at one end of the seminar table, for that was what the lovely, lifeless woman in the pictures was made of.

It was three weeks before Christmas and outside the windows of the worn and very green fourth floor seminar room, Cambridge was covered in a thin layer of brand new snow. Under the delicate coating, the buildings at this end of the Yard looked to Sweeney like gingerbread houses dusted with powdered sugar. There was something about a snowstorm that purified the city, made it cozier and even more lovely.

After removing her parka and checking the wall clock to confirm that her "Iconography of Death" students wouldn't be arriving for several minutes, Sweeney had dropped the full slide carousel into the projector, placed her notes in front of her and settled her almost six-foot frame into one of the remarkably uncomfortable chairs around the table to look at the pictures.

The color snapshots had been taken in a New England cemetery, complete with slate and granite headstones typical of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and a few marble examples from the late nineteenth and twentieth. The few older Puritan stones stood at attention near the back fence, the more recent dead resting nearer to the front gate, dry autumn leaves piled around their bases. As she always did when she saw photographs of cemeteries she hadn't yet visited, Sweeney found herself wishing for a couple of hours alone with those stones and her gravestone rubbing materials. She loved the magic of making rubbings, the way long-obscured words and images revealed themselves under her hand. This one would contain a few good eighteenth-century examples, she was sure, and there would be some lovely carvings of willow trees and soul's heads. But all in all, it was a thoroughly average graveyard in every way.

In every way, that was, except for the strange, life-sized monument of the young woman. Sweeney flipped through the pile and found the best of them, a head-on shot. She studied it carefully.

The girl was limp in the bottom of the shallow, vaguely fashioned rowboat and behind her, the stern rose like a hangman's hood. Sitting jauntily upon it, and holding a scythe, was the remarkable figure of Death, his bony arms and legs intricately carved from the milky stone.

Sweeney looked again. That was strange. Images of the human face of Death were common on Puritan stones from the mid-1600s and even on stones made in the early nineteenth century, but the style of this stone was much more advanced than any Puritan stone she had ever seen. In fact, it was more like a sculpture, the dead woman's face and breasts as softly and expertly rounded as a Rodin or a Saint-Gaudens. What was the date?

She flipped through the pictures and found one that was a close-up of the tablet at the end of the stone. It was engraved with a few words and some kind of poem.


January 3, 1872 to August 28, 1890

So it was late Victorian. That was puzzling. It was completely atypical for a Victorian stone. By the time this Mary Denholm had died, stonecarvers had moved on to the more familiar euphemistic images for death, such as willow trees, or romanticized cherubs and garlands. But here was this strange reaper, his figure so much more accomplished than those of his brethren on other stones. This Death was a man, with a man's face somehow suggested in the familiar skull. He gazed down at the girl lying beneath him, his eyes soft, a dreamy smile playing at his bony lips. There was something familiar about the way he looked down at his prey, Sweeney realized, something loving.

She did a quick calculation. Eighteen. The girl had been eighteen. What had she died of? Childbirth was a likely cause, but there wasn't a husband's named on the stone, as in "Mary, Beloved Wife of James," so perhaps it had been something else. She searched the marble surface, grainy in the photos. In all her years of studying gravestones and mourning jewelry, shrouds and death masks and funerary art, Sweeney had never seen anything quite as intriguing as this lovely, eroticized sculpture of a dead girl.

The verse below the name and dates on the tablet were inscribed in small, precise letters and Sweeney struggled to make them out. She tipped the surface of the photograph toward the fluorescent overhead light and there they were, as bizarre as the work on which they'd been etched.

Death resides in my garden, with his hands wrapped 'round my throat
He beckons me to follow and I step lightly in his boat.
All around us summer withers, blossoms drop and rot,
And Death bids me to follow, his arrow in my heart.

There was more, but Sweeney looked up from the photograph then, for something about the dead girl, the strange poem and the smiling figure of Death had made her think of the early New England gravestones that described Indian raids or grisly murders. She wondered how this girl had died.

Voices sounded in the hall. She tucked the photographs into her bookbag and stood up to welcome her class.

"Hey, Sweeney," said Brendan Freeman, one of her senior advisees. "How's it going?"

Still two years away from her thirtieth birthday, Sweeney knew she wasn't the model of a professorial authority figure. Her class outfits tended toward jeans or whatever she'd found that week at her favorite Cambridge vintage clothes shop, and her bright red curls, which fell halfway down her back, were often unruly, hastily pinned up with a pencil or a binder clip. But she hadn't gotten to be twenty-eight without beginning to understand how she affected people, and she knew that there was something about her open, lightly freckled face, with its large green eyes and delicate nose, its almost-but-not-quite-beautiful expression of passionate expectancy, that put her students at ease, but that also made them want to work. Her department chairman had once told her he thought she was too familiar with her students, but insisting on "Professor St. George" seemed a hollow gesture.

"Hi, Brendan. Hi, everybody. How are you all holding up?"

It was the last class before the winter vacation and they filed in lethargically, lugging backpacks and textbooks. The shabby carpet and sickly green walls of the seminar room reflected their moods. When they were seated, she could see she'd lost about half of them to early flights home or late nights in the library for other classes.

She took a deep breath. She just had to get through this lecture and one more and she'd be done until January. "All right, let's get going. Today's lecture is entitled 'The Triumph of Death.' Ring any bells? Come on, let's see what you remember from the reading." A few tentative hands waved back at her.

The strange gravestone would have to wait.

SWEENEY WAS ALMOST through with the class when Toby DiMarco slipped in and sat down in a chair at the back of the darkened room, grinning at her and then bowing his head of dark, Italian Renaissance curls to the table in mock concentration. Toby, who was not in the class, was Sweeney's best friend and liked to come and watch her teach. They'd met their freshman year at college and, with the exception of the three years Sweeney had been in England at Oxford, had both stayed in Boston. Since returning to America almost a year ago, Sweeney had been appointed an assistant professor in the History of Art and Architecture Department and published a book on Victorian death rituals and representations called The Art of the Grave: Death and the Victorian World. The book had enjoyed some modest success: an NPR interview and a quirky and complimentary review in The New York Times Book Review. Its success had gotten Sweeney her job and made her the most disliked member of the department. Her colleagues found her area of specialty overly broad and decidedly lowbrow, and they were envious of her mainstream success. She knew her chances of getting tenure were almost nil, but she loved her students.

Toby, for his part, had made a career of graduate school. He was forever trying to finish his novel — a Generation X roman à clef long ago called promising by a beloved writing professor — as well as his seemingly interminable Ph.D. thesis on an obscure American poet named James Milliner, and would turn from one to the other at sixmonth intervals, announcing each time to his exhausted friends that he had finally decided to commit to whichever project it was. The problem, which Sweeney was always trying to identify for him without hurting his feelings, was that he didn't know whether he wanted to be a writer or an academic. So he continued on being neither exactly.

"If you look here, you'll see what I mean about the skeleton," she told the class, pointing to the head of a jaunty-looking Death who leaned against an urn on a gravestone up on the slide screen. "Anyone want to guess when this is? Brendan, would you like to give it a stab? No pun intended."

That got a laugh from the class.

"I'd guess eighteenth century," Brendan said. "1760s?"

"Close." Sweeney grinned at him gratefully. "1750s. A cemetery near Concord. Remember the skeleton and now, look at this one." She pressed the "ahead" button on the projector controls.

Up came a medieval fresco, a resurrection scene with a skeleton lurking in the background.

"Skeletons have been used as memento mori symbols in art as far back as the Greeks and Romans, who displayed them at feasts as a reminder that they were mortal and ought to enjoy life while they could. Skeletons were reproduced on drinking cups and in floor mosaics, things people saw and used every day.

"Skeletons and skulls and crossbones were common until the end of the eighteenth century," she went on, "when they were replaced by the more euphemistic images — cherubs, soul's heads and the like. These images came to stand in for the more macabre ones. If you think for a moment about someone walking through a cemetery, looking at the stones, you can see what the difference would have been between say an eighteenth-century one and a Victorian example."

Unless, she realized, you were talking about the stone she'd just seen in those photographs.

Sweeney glanced up at the clock. It was eleven.

"Well, that's it. We'll finish up in January. Thank you, everybody. Have a great holiday and safe trip to wherever you're going. I'll see you in a month or so. Remember to keep reading in Genetti and start thinking about your final paper topics."

"Hey, prof," Toby said when everyone had filed out of the room. "Good class." He looked the way she pictured him when she hadn't seen him for a while, skinny as one of her skeletons, his cherubically curly black hair too long and completely unarranged. She felt a surge of affection as he shrugged out of his black leather jacket and moved his wire-rimmed glasses aside to rub the bridge of his nose. With his pale skin and dark Italian eyes, he'd always reminded her of a goofier, geekier version of the nubile gods in rococo paintings.


"By the way, which poor member of the Smith class of 1945 gave up her clothes for the cause?" He cast a disapproving look at her outfit.

"What?" She looked down at her pleated skirt and belted jacket. "Don't you think it's cool? I think it's a Balenciaga knockoff."

Toby didn't say anything. He tended to date girls who wore fashions that could be found in current fashion magazines.

"And what's that around your neck?"

"Oh, look." She showed him the small gold and black coffin, inhabited by a skeleton and hanging on a chain around her neck. It was a museum reproduction of an Elizabethan pendant and a recent purchase.

"You're weird."

"Thanks a lot. To what do I owe the honor?" She pointed to a chair and they sat down.

"What are you doing for Christmas again? Something fun like spending it completely alone with a bottle of scotch and some thirty-two-hour BBC costume drama?"

"Shut up." She kicked his chair. "I like having Christmas by myself. And besides, I'm on an old Italian movie kick right now." She said it lightly, but his words had bitten a little.

"Well, if you can drag yourself away from Marcello Mastroianni long enough to come to Vermont with me, I've got a proposition for you."

She raised her eyebrows. "What kind of proposition?"

"A gravestone. To be precise, the gravestone in the photographs that were here when you came into the room." Leave it to Toby, with his flair for the dramatic, to leave the unlabeled photos, knowing they would spark her interest.

"You? I couldn't figure out where they came from." She retrieved the prints from her bookbag and spread them out on the table.

"So what do you think?"

"I'm intrigued." She found the close-up of the tablet and read the bizarre epitaph in its entirety this time.

Death resides in my garden, with his hands wrapped 'round my throat
He beckons me to follow and I step lightly in his boat.
All around us summer withers, blossoms drop and rot,
And Death bids me to follow, his arrow in my heart.
We sail away on his ocean, and the garden falls away
where life and death are neighbors, and night never turns to day.
A wind comes up on the water, Death's sails are full and proud
My love I will go with thee, dressed in a funeral shroud.
Now her tomb lies quiet, the shroud is turned to stone
And where Death had been standing, is only the grave of her bones.


"I know, the poem's not very good," Toby said. "But I think you'll be interested anyway."

"All right. Tell me more."

"You knew I went to Vermont for Thanksgiving, right? To stay with Patch and Britta?"

Sweeney nodded. Patch and Britta Wentworth were Toby's aunt and uncle on what Sweeney liked to call the "grand branch" of his family. They lived with their children in the former arts colony in Byzantium, Vermont, in a house called Birch Lane that had been built by Toby's great-grandfather. The great-grandfather was Herrick Gilmartin, a famous landscape and portrait painter from the 1880s on. Gilmartin, the sculptor Bryn Davies Morgan and a host of other well-known American artists had summered or lived off-and-on in the colony at Byzantium for most of their working lives. Sweeney didn't know much about the colony, but she'd once heard a colleague say that for a time, Byzantium and a handful of other New England artists' communities had contained the greatest concentration of artistic talent in the United States.

"Well, while I was up there, I was looking around in the little cemetery near Patch and Britta's and remembered that there's always been some question about that stone. It's pretty strange for the time period, right?"

Sweeney nodded. "Really strange. The girl would be a very typical Victorian monument, if she were standing and draped over a grave or something, but the figure of Death is incredibly weird, very un-Victorian actually. And it's clearly by a real artist, a sculptor. Any idea who it was?"

"I don't think anybody knows. The assumption is that it was by someone who was a member of the colony or someone who visited, but it isn't signed."

"Who was the girl? Mary Denholm."

"Just a local girl. The family lived down below my great- grandparents' house and one of the Denholm descendants still lives in the house. Ruth Kimball. I've known her all my life."

Sweeney studied the photographs while he talked.

"So what's the proposition?"

"Come up to Vermont with me for Christmas. I already asked Patch and Britta and they said they'd love to have you. You can look into this stone a little, maybe get a chapter for your book about an anomalous, heretofore-unidentified masterpiece, have some fun for a change. Christmas is great up there, lots of skiing and wassailing. Whatever wassailing is. And they have this giant party every year, a couple of days before the twenty-fifth. You'll love it."

There was a note of desperation in his voice that made her ask, a little slyly, "Why do you want to go back up to Vermont again so soon after Thanksgiving? You could go spend Christmas with your mom in California."


Excerpted from O'Artful Death by Sarah Stewart Taylor. Copyright © 2003 Sarah Stewart Taylor. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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