by Marilyn Meredith
& Frankie Bailey
This week we have a review of sci-fi/mystery novel What the Fly Saw by Frankie Bailey, along with an interesting guest post about death rituals from Frankie. Details at the end of this post on how to win a copy of the book.
What the Fly Saw by Frankie Bailey
Review by Marilyn Meredith
Albany, New York, January 2020
The morning after a blizzard that shut down the city, funeral director Kevin Novak is found dead in the basement of his funeral home. The arrow sticking out of his chest came from his own hunting bow. A loving husband and father and an active member of a local mega church, Novak had no known enemies. His family and friends say he had been depressed because his best friend died suddenly of a heart attack and Novak blamed himself. But what does his guilt have to do with his death? Maybe nothing, maybe a lot. The minister of the mega church, the psychiatrist who provides counseling to church members or the folksy Southern medium who irritates both men—one of these people may know why Novak was murdered. Detective Hannah McCabe and her partner, Mike Baxter, sort through lies and evasions to find the person who killed their “Cock Robin,” But McCabe is distracted by a political controversy involving her family, unanswered questions from another high-profile case, and her own guilt when a young woman dies after McCabe fails to act.
Ordinarily I’m not a fan of science fiction, but even though What the Fly Saw is set in the not too distant future, what happens is believable and works beautifully for this story. Because I read this while New York was experiencing a monumental snow storm, the complications caused by similar weather in this novel, made it seem even more realistic.
I’ve become a fan of this series. Author Frankie Bailey has created a cast of characters who I enjoy reading about, and the plot is definitely unique, from the murder victim being a funeral director: and to add to the fun there’s a medium along with a séance. Don’t misunderstand; this is not a silly cozy, but a mystery with plausible and intriguing characters. Detective Hannah McCabe is the kind of sleuth the reader can follow along and root for as McCabe sometimes stumbles while trying to solve a crime.
There were plenty of twists and turns, and though the clues were there, I didn’t guess the outcome.
A book I highly recommend.
Death Rituals in American Culture
By Frankie Bailey
In my new mystery, the victim is a funeral director. This choice of victim was not chance. With The Red Queen Dies, the first book in my Hannah McCabe series, I decided to draw on children’s literature and folk ballads for inspiration. The old English ballad, “Who Killed Cock Robin?” was the inspiration for What the Fly Saw. In the ballad, the victim is a robin (newly-married to Jenny Wren). Translating that into the death of a human victim left me with infinite possibilities. However, because the ballad included a burial, a funeral director seemed a natural choice.
As a criminal justice professor who studies both mass media/popular culture and crime history, I am often confronted by death. No, I don’t go to crime scenes, and I have been to only one autopsy. And, no, the homicide rate is not spiraling out-of-control. In fact, it has been going down. But I study crime history and crime and mass media/popular culture. In American history and culture, sensational narratives about real and imagined violent crime abound. As a mystery writer, I contribute to the fictional body count. However, I like to think that aside from the entertainment value of my fiction, I also invite readers to contemplate matters of life and death. This is the reason the victim in What the Fly Saw is a funeral director.
As a Southerner, I grew up attending what my adult relatives described as “good funerals” (during which the minister offered a rousing sermon, the obituary brought both tears and laughter, and the voices of the choir members soared). These funerals were preceded by visitations and followed by hearty meals (e.g., baked ham, potato salad, and sweet potato pie). Overseeing these rituals was the funeral director (“undertaker”) in his dark suit and pristine white shirt. The undertaker of my childhood was both respected for the necessary and valued community function he performed and held at a psychological – or even physical — distance because of his connection with death. (Remember that scene in Bonnie and Clyde (1967) when Bonnie orders Clyde to stop the car and leave the young couple they have kidnapped along the side of the road when the man tells them he is an undertaker?).
By making the victim of What the Fly Saw a funeral director, I had an opportunity to think about death rituals in America. The earliest published narratives in colonial New England were gallows sermons (preached prior to an execution) and gallows confessions (the account by the doomed offender of how he or she went astray). The purpose of the rituals that produced these narratives was not only to prepare offenders for the afterlife, but to act as a deterrent to others who heard or read about them. Their public executions also were thought to serve as a general deterrent. In the 19th century, anti-dueling crusaders sought legislature that would deter Southern gentlemen from engaging in fatal “affairs of honor” by not only criminalizing the encounters but by refusing the losers burial in consecrated ground.
However, burial after death was an uncertain prospect even if one lived a righteous life and died of old age or illness. Folktales – and the tales of Edgar Allan Poe – described the horrors of being buried alive (while comatose). Hence the need for a bell above the grave that could be rung if one regained consciousness below ground. Even if one were truly dead, there was the risk of being stolen by grave robbers and sold to a medical school as a cadaver (for anatomy practice).
Historically, the process of dying and being buried happened within the household. With the rise of the funeral industry in the aftermath of the Civil War, the tasks of caring for the deceased were increasingly placed in the hands of paid professionals. Now there is movement — led by aging baby boomers — to regain control over the process. One of the ways they are doing this is by personalizing the rituals. They are designing their own funerals and choosing unique caskets – or, no, caskets. Green-conscious consumers and those looking for less expensive options than traditional interment have been opting for cremation. Others have decided to celebrate their own lives while they are still able to enjoy the party. In What the Fly Saw, an 85-year old woman’s celebration of life is the setting in which I introduce my victim. He is there as her friend and as the funeral director who she intends to bury her when she (eventually) dies. But he dies first – is murdered.
In real life and in fiction, sudden death brings a range of emotions. These emotions may include disbelief, anger, and guilt. In What the Fly Saw, Detective Hannah McCabe and her partner must distinguish believe genuine grief and clever acting. In this book, McCabe herself has reason to ponder what she believes about death and the afterlife.
To enter to win a copy of What the Fly Saw, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “Fly,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen March 14, 2015. U.S. residents only. If entering via email please include your mailing address, and if via comment please include your email address.