Under the Skin by Vicki Lane: Book Review
By: Mary Ickes
I’ll never write another cliff-hanger! declares Ms. Lane in her introduction to Under the Skin. She concluded the previous book in her Full Circle Farm Mystery series, In a Dark Season, with a cryptic letter to Elizabeth Goodweather, the series’ protagonist, intending to solve the dilemma within a year. Alas, Miss Birdie, a diminutive, dynamic mountain woman, demanded her own book (Day of Small Things). Miss Birdie pleased, Ms. Lane concluded her cliff-hanger, assigning Elizabeth a slightly altered role. Instead of solving a murder, she confronts personal danger on two fronts.
First, the cliff hanger. Three years after Sam, her husband, died in a suspicious plane crash, Phillip Hawkins, Sam’s Navy buddy, walked into Elizabeth’s life (Old Wounds) under suspicious circumstances. Their conflict resolved, they plan to be married next month—until Aunt Dodie’s letter arrives. Dodie’s husband, a retired Navy Admiral, received information from Sam indicating that Phillip may have caused the plane’s crash. Five months earlier, Dodie forwarded Sam’s letter to Elizabeth, but, receiving no response, she wrote again to confirm receipt. The letter never arrived, leaving Elizabeth stunned and angry that Phillip may be duping her again. Before she can confront him, Gloria, her younger sister, calls to announce her arrival for an open-ended visit to escape her murderous husband.
Elizabeth’s reaction seems drastic —I wanted to throw something, to stamp my foot, to fling myself to the floor and have a screaming, kicking tantrum—until Gloria appears at 10:53 the next morning looking as though she stepped from a Vogue magazine photo shoot into Elizabeth’s kitchen. The coffee is cold, the yogurt is not Greek, the dried cranberries are too sugary, and the milk is two percent, not skim. Lizzy (a nickname Elizabeth deplores) must remodel her kitchen, install a dishwasher, replace the wood burning stove, and demolish the wooden counter before she poisons someone. And, thank heaven, Gloria arrived to plan a real wedding before Elizabeth embarrasses herself and her guests with the backyard ceremony she is planning.
Convinced that Gloria concocted her husband’s murder attempts for attention, Elizabeth scoffs when Gloria returns from Asheville screaming that the Eyebrow, her husband’s mysterious business associate, is stalking her. Even Phillip, a detective in the sheriff’s department, wonders about Gloria’s histrionics—the Eyebrow?—until she discovers an ominous threat beneath her pillow. Gloria flees to the Mountain Magnolia Inn in Hot Springs. A man’s shoe print outside the window and Phillip’s productive sleuthing shames Elizabeth into acknowledging the Voice of Conscience, chiding her since Gloria’s arrival.
Elizabeth so closely resembled the father who deserted their family, that their mother ignored her and pampered Gloria. Elizabeth retreated into the solitude of books, often slamming the door of her room in Gloria’s face. After a childhood spent playing “the tall one” to Gloria’s petite prettiness, I’d taught myself to dismiss my sister as a ditz in high heels, a poster child for conspicuous consumption, a walking dumb blonde joke. To her further chagrin, she responded to Gloria’s recent efforts to please her with polite indifference. Elizabeth vows to be the epitome of patient attentiveness when she joins Gloria at the Mountain Magnolia Inn for the Exploration of the Other Side psychic weekend; she also packs her gun.
Though astonished at Elizabeth’s new demeanor, Gloria basks in the attention, and their relationship begins to heal. Elizabeth’s instincts prove correct, but her gun is useless. How can she prove that the person finessing Gloria’s dearest wish into an invitation to live with her is a dangerous fake? Phillip is equally baffled when they arrive home early from the weekend.
As in the previous novels, Ms. Lane includes a parallel story, set in an earlier period. Guests at the Mountain Park Hotel, Dorothea and Theodora DeVine, con grieving people into believing that they are communicating with their dead loved ones. This initially annoying interruption to Elizabeth’s story (the parallel story was a surprise for me) deliciously intertwines the eras through perspectives and settings.
The main perspective, of course, is Elizabeth, in first person, but through phone conversations and introspections, Gloria reveals herself to be catty (Elizabeth is letting herself go), remarkably sensible, and desperate for her sister’s companionship. Joining Phillip for a few chapters, we see that he is respected by his peers because he takes his work seriously, especially protecting Elizabeth. His reasons, love or intrigue, are not easily defined. The shallow DeVine sisters deserve their third-person treatment, but the chapters devoted to Amarantha, their witless (they think) chambermaid, and the historical vignettes devise a fascinating nineteenth-century background. All the more so when an audacious historical figure engages Amarantha’s wisdom in exposing the sisters.
Pictures of the authentic settings enhance the plot’s credibility. Readers can easily imagine the DeVine sisters’ fake séances at the enormous and elegant Mountain Spring Hotel, built in 1866, (hotspringsnc.org). Elizabeth and Gloria’s perils at the Mountain Magnolia Inn (mountainmagnoliainn.comj), on property formerly owned by the Mountain Park House proprietors, turn even more harrowing. Both websites refer to the mineral baths and spas crucial to the historical and modern plots. To see Elizabeth’s Full Circle Farm, her source of peace and courage, visit Ms. Lane’s blog site (address below). Even though Elizabeth knows nothing of the intertwining plots, she admits: For a person who prides herself on her rationality and who has . . . avoided all varieties of psychic exploration, I have to admit that there’ve been events . . . that I couldn’t explain so I didn’t try.
Unfortunately, Reading Friends, Ms. Lane writes in her blog that Under the Skin may be readers’ final visit to Full Circle Farm because Elizabeth’s fans are not . . . growing in the way that publishers like to see. Readers, like me, who began with Under the Skin, still have many hours of enjoyable reading ahead. For ardent fans reluctant to bid farewell to Full Circle Farm, this may be another cliff-hanger because Ms. Lane writes . . . I do still have ideas for more adventures for our girl . . . and for her daughters.
Vicki Lane, in 1975, moved to her farm in North Carolina, the model for Full Circle Farm. An accomplished photographer, Ms. Lane’s blog is a glorious profusion . . . from writing, chickens, food, books, quilts, flora and fauna of all sorts to the occasional tiny rant. Blog address: vickilanemysteries.blogspot.com Full Circle Farm website: vickilanemysteries.com
VIEW FROM MY CATIO
Buddy, T. C. P. E.
(Tuxedo Cat Par Excellence)
My view was interesting this month for two reasons: 1) along with Mary, I enjoyed Ms. Lane’s blog, and 2) the fourth time Mary read the story of Willa’s rescue by Ms. Lane, her gears kicked in. I can just hear her now, “But, Roy, the poor cow(s) simply has/have no place else to go.” A tuxedo Holstein cow would be nice!