Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Need a Break from Reality? Try a book by C. S. McDonald's Cozy Series - Murder by the Stroke!


As Nathan rolled the Mini Cooper to a stop in front of their house, he explained, “I’m not upset with you, Fiona…exactly. But I did express my feelings about you going to the exhibit. That said, I did not expect you to actually bump into Sadie at the exhibit. Artists aren’t usually there, are they? At least not the famous ones. It’s usually just an exhibit of their works for sale, right?” Nathan asked. 

Fiona could see he was trying to keep his annoyance under wraps. “I’m not an art connoisseur. I don’t attend enough art exhibits to know the protocols, Nathan. Furthermore, you hid the invitation to the gala from me. What was that about?” Fiona shot back. Nathan slid out of the driver’s seat while Fiona stepped from the passenger side. 

They met at the back of the Cooper. “Because I was trying to avoid exactly what has happened,” Nathan began. “I didn’t want any contact with Sadie or Vashti or whatever it is she’s calling herself these days. Michelle wasn’t kidding, Fiona. She was a real nutcase.” He opened the hatch, studied the rectangular object wrapped in brown paper in the back of the car, then let out a beleaguered breath. Clearly unhappy, he tried to soften his tone. “C’mon, let’s get this into the house.” Carefully, he shimmied the painting from the cargo area and lifted it out. Fiona slammed the hatch closed and hurried past Nathan. “I’ll unlock the front door.” 

Just then, Dad rolled Nathan’s SUV up Oxford Street. The headlights glinting off a vehicle parked at the top of the street caught Fiona’s gaze. She detected a quick movement when the light flashed across the windshield. Why would anyone park there? The lot at the intersection of Oxford and Shady Hill Road just above McMath’s big white house was abandoned, plagued with brambles and thicket and a scatter of disgusting litter those who passed by felt justified to toss from their car window. Throughout Fiona’s life, there had never been a house on that lot. Mr. McMath complained about the mess all the time. Currently, the streetlamp was burned out. Who knew how long it would take the city to replace the bulb. 

“I can’t wait to have a look at the painting,” Mom called after Fiona, taking her attention from the car. “I wonder how long it will take us to find the invisible stroke?” “If we can find it,” Dad put in, as they trailed behind Nathan, struggling to maneuver the steps without stumbling. Fiona pushed the front door open to be greeted by Harriet’s impatient barks. From their crates upstairs, the Yorkies joined in. Nathan turned sideways to get the painting through the door. After Nathan was inside, Dad hurried up the stairs to set the Yorkies free. 

“Put it on the sofa,” Fiona said. She bent down to let Harriet out of her crate. The little Maltese danced around her mistress’s feet. Fiona scooped the bundle of fluff into her arms. “Then we’ll take off the paper so you can see it.” “And we can start the search,” Mom gleefully added. Obliging his wife’s request, Nathan eased the painting onto the sofa, then ripped away the wrapping and tossing it to the floor. Fiona and her mother gathered round to admire the sumptuous autumn colors bursting from the leaning maple tree. Soft flowing shades of purple in the wispy strokes of wild flowers edging the rocky trail winding through a field of golden wheat. Just then, a herd of pint-size pups came charging down the staircase. Dad descended the stairs, too, but at a much slower pace. Fiona put Harriet down to merrily jump, box, and growl at her five little guests. 

“I don’t know where to begin to look. There’s so much to see. So much to consider,” Mom remarked, while inspecting the painting, probing. “Like I said before,” Dad began as he moved toward the painting. “If no one will admit where they found the stroke on the paintings they’ve purchased, how do we know it really exists? Searching could be a complete waste of time and unnecessary eye strain.” Dad’s voice was filled with suspicion. As Fiona instantly recalled, he wasn’t the only skeptic. The art critic for The Journal, Mr. Lemmon, put those thoughts to paper and published it for all of Pittsburgh to consider. 

Dad’s eyes brightened. “Hey, do I smell coffee?” Gathering up the brown paper from the floor, Fiona glanced toward the kitchen. Grandma Ev always made sure there was coffee brewing when Fiona had guests. No matter what the hour. “Seems I do. Coffee, Mom?” Mom dragged her eyes away from the painting. “No, but I’d love a glass of pinot, if you’ve got it.” The little Yorkie, Sting, pawed at Mom’s jeans. Keeping her eyes trained on the painting, she lifted him into her arms and hugged him to her chest. “Always,” Fiona replied. 

She turned to Nathan and his stoney expression. He looked as if a demon had just been released into the house. He stood back from the painting. His brooding eyes examining it with petulance. “Do you want coffee, Nathan?” His stare flicked away from the landscape. “No.” With that, he followed Fiona into the kitchen. After discarding the paper into the trash, Fiona grabbed a mug from the cabinet, and a wine glass from the rack beneath. 

“You hate it, don’t you?” she asked quietly, picking up the carafe from the coffeemaker. Crossing his arms over his chest, Nathan leaned a hip against the counter. “I’m not happy about it, that’s for sure. So, that guy offered you forty-grand for it? Why didn’t you sell?” Fiona stepped past Nathan to open the fridge and retrieve the creamer and a bottle of Pinot Noir. “Like I said, it was a gift. Vashti was very kind and gracious. Again, what happened between the two of you was a long time ago, Nathan. I think she wanted you to have the painting as a peace offering, or at the very least, as a sign that she’s moved on and wishes you well. Why can’t you see it that way?” 

“I’m sorry. You’re probably right. If you’re dead set on keeping it, it may take some time for me to get used to the idea. So, let’s not be in a big hurry to hang it on a wall, okay?” Wow, that relationship must’ve been truly volatile. Fiona twisted the wine opener into the cork of the Pinot. “Okay. Do you recognize the place she painted, or is it just some random location?” 

“Oh, no. I’ve walked that trail many times. As you can see in the painting, it leads to her grandfather’s fields. Sadie had a bad home life. Her dad was a drunk and her mom suffered from severe depression and anxiety. The woman was institution-worthy. Sadie’s grandparents’ farm was her refuge, and we spent a lot of time there. Dale and Edna Jensen were good people.” “Where is it?” “Glenshaw. It was a beautiful place,” Nathan replied. “Mom read somewhere that she spends her winters at the farm, and she holds camps there for budding artists during the summer,” Fiona supplied. “That’s nice.” 

He leaned in and kissed her lips. “I’ve got an early morning, and it’s way past my bedtime. I’m going up if that’s okay.” Fiona glanced at the clock on the wall. “It’s almost eleven. It is past your bedtime. Sorry. I’ll shoo them upstairs as soon as I can tear Mom away.” Nathan tossed her a brittle smile and a nod. Then made his way down the short hallway to the foyer, leaned into the living room, and said, “Good night.” “Good night, Nate,” Mom and Dad sang out in unison. 

Fiona’s heart ached. Nathan wasn’t comfortable with the painting. Yet, how could she have refused to take the gift Vashti had so graciously offered? Now, how could she display the painting in the house knowing how Nathan felt? It was very simple. She couldn’t. Fiona thought it best to give the painting to her mother. Mom would be thrilled to have such a piece in her home. She could challenge her friends to find the stroke. Vashti would never be the wiser, and Nathan would be rid of it. Problem solved. Letting out a relieved breath, Fiona carried the mug of coffee and glass of wine into the living room.


Having your husband's former lover come back into town is never a great experience; however, in this case, it would take extra-special  tact and finesse for Fiona to deal with the situation. Not only was Vashti beautiful, but she was also now a highly regarded and creator of beautiful landscape scenes that, maybe, were not so exceptional as others...but...had a gimmick to draw in potential customers/clients... She hid a "stroke" in each of her paintings... Well, my first thought was that's pretty hard to even consider, since most paintings had hundreds if not thousands of strokes of the artist's brush! 

When she'd casually point out her tease, and maybe, even a taunt that she thought nobody could find that "one" stroke among all the others, word spread across the art world and now in her latest exhibit in her hometown, where Fiona and Nathan lived, her prices had soared higher than many had expected. It was the gallery owner's job to point out that the demand for her paintings now called for a higher value being placed on her work. 

But, then, why did Vashti send an opening invitation to just Nathan--an invitation which he then hid from her, without even saying a word? Unfortunately, it was during a visit of Fiona's parents and not being able to hide the news about the opening soon led to the female members of the family heading to the gallery! Where, Vashti, chose to give the painting that she had planned for Nathan, to Fiona, instead, as a wedding present! Graciously, of course, were both women--as possible...

An interesting sub-plot was a man who claimed that he had "found" every stroke and he could do it in less than 30 minutes... Of course, we later discover that he is a fanatic/stalker of the artist, and has his entire home filled with her paintings... So, why is he important? Well, an art critic for the local newspaper had "dared" to suggest that the stroke was a gimmick by the artist herself and used to raise the value...

Soon that man was found dead... And then the art gallery manager also... Nathan, Fiona's husband is also a police office and responsible for investigating these deaths. Soon there was a basic issue that would prove to be helpful... The two bodies had been found in a certain place--that place had been the exact location of where the stroke had also been discovered in two of her paintings. So, Nathan soon had all of his officers, including the man who claimed to be able to find the strokes, examining all of the paintings that had been for sale... 

For, of course, the artist was considered the prime suspect when the places were where the two men had been found and which had received a "special stroke"! Yes, she might have had a motive for the art critic, but not for the gallery manager...

I thoroughly enjoyed the concept of a "stroke" marking the spot of a murder/death. However, would the location mean anything in being able to prove who had indeed murdered two men? 

And what about the crazed woman who had barged into the gallery, took a knife, and cut across one of the paintings which had been placed up for auction/sale?

Two simultaneous investigations were being considered...One by Nathan; the other by his wife, acting as that independent investigator who turns a murder mystery into a cozy mystery...LOL

This is a fun read--complex enough to allow me to escape directly into the whodunitx2, but cozy enough to enjoy the setting, the talk about paintings and their locations... I'm an individual who enjoys landscape paintings--a country girl who loves to walk in the woods and then see them within my home. When I moved into my cabin, I began a small collection of pieces of art by Thomas Kinkaid, often referred to as the Author of Light... Here's one of his landscapes that is my favorite...from his Cabin series. Combined with my favorite scripture verse, "I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes unto the Hills..."

Cindy, this book has been added as one of my personal favorite books for 2023... Thank you for bringing the light of God's world, even in a time of such darkness...

God Bless


1 comment:

  1. Oh, I am so thrilled you enjoyed Murder by the Stroke. Actually, yes, there is such a thing as an "invisible stroke" I just took it to a different level for the sake of storytelling. Fiona and I thank you so very much for this incredible review, and for listing Murder by the Stroke as one of your favorites for this year! Well wishes and happy reading for 2024!