Author Emily Arsenault will read from her latest mystery Thursday, Aug. 7, in Shelburne Falls
“What Strange Creatures” by Emily Arsenault (William Morrow, 384 pages, $14.99)
“What strange creatures brothers are!” says a character in Jane Austen’s “Mansfield Park.” Emily Arsenault of Shelburne Falls takes the title of her fourth novel from this quotation because “What Strange Creatures” is fundamentally about brother-sister relations.
Heroine Theresa Battle and her brother, Jeff are 30-somethings coasting through life. Theresa pays her rent by writing catalog copy for a candle company while slowly working on a doctoral dissertation about Margery Kempe. Kempe was a 15th-century would-be mystic best known for creating the first autobiography in the English language.
Jeff is unemployed and, Theresa discovers, drinking much more than he should. He thinks his life may be looking up when he meets a pretty young waitress named Kim.
Theresa tries to like her brother’s new girlfriend and even agrees to dog-sit for Kim’s puggle (half pug, half beagle) one weekend. Her life and Jeff’s are turned upside down when Kim doesn’t return for the dog. Soon they learn that Kim has been murdered — and Jeff is arrested as her murderer.
The Battles have always thought of themselves as losers and Jeff does little to fight the police case against him. Deciding to take action for once in her life, Theresa tries to find out as much as she can about Kim.
She learns that Kim was a witness in a murder trial when she was a little girl. The prosecutor in that trial is now a candidate for the Senate and Kim has apparently been trying to discredit him by bringing up cases from his prosecutorial days in which he acted improperly.
Theresa juggles animals, parents, two new potential romantic interests and fascinating stories about Kempe as she tries to figure out exactly what Kim knew — and who might have resented that knowledge enough to murder her.
Theresa, her family and her pets grab the reader’s attention immediately. This heroine is smart and funny. Her meanderings about her doctoral dissertation ring true, as does her relationship with Jeff. They are siblings to whom most brothers and sisters can relate — close, but not always honest with each other.
Theresa goes astray (and briefly becomes less likable) at one point in the book when she sleeps with a young man who possesses some videos belonging to Kim, who breaks into his computer to look for the videos while he is asleep.
In general, however, she is a forthright, engaging companion. And the mystery at the heart of Arsenault’s novel is just complex enough to keep the reader guessing throughout most of this entertaining novel.
Discussion and reading
Arsenault will launch “What Strange Creatures” with a discussion and book signing at Boswell’s Books in Shelburne Falls on Thursday, Aug. 7, at 6:30 p.m.
Tinky Weisblat is the author of “The Pudding Hollow Cookbook” and “Pulling Taffy.” Visit her website, www.TinkyCooks.com.