Anne Carroll George (1927-2001) was best known to me as a cozy mystery writer, the creator of the eight Southern Sisters mysteries set in Birmingham, Alabama, released between 1996 and 2001. She was also short-listed for a Pulitzer, nominated in 1993 for her poetry collection entitled Some of It Is True.
The Southern Sisters are Patricia Anne and Mary Alice, otherwise known as Mouse and Sister. Patricia Anne is married to Fred, has three adult children, and is a retired schoolteacher. Mary Alice has been married and widowed three times, has three grown children, and has enough money from her marriages to never have to worry again. They all live in Birmingham, Alabama, which George describes in the most affectionate of terms. In Murder on a Bad Hair Day (Avon, 1996) Christmas is only three weeks away, and Patricia Anne has yet to start her shopping. Mary Alice has invited her to attend a gallery opening, where they meet Abraham, a popular folk artist, whose work they both admire. They also meet the owner of the gallery, Mercy Armistead, who is found dead after the party is over. Not, as it turns out, of natural causes. The gallery owner’s assistant reports someone broke into her apartment the same night and tried to kill her. When the police investigate, they find her apartment has been vandalized. The assistant, a former student of Patricia Anne’s, disappears a day later. As Patricia Anne bakes cookies and shops and decorates, she and Mary Alice try to find the assistant, who seems to have left the hospital, where she was placed for protection, without clothes or money.
I love Southern literature. Even the lightest of stories set in the South is redolent of family and history. The past is never really past, it’s an integral part of the present. Idiosyncrasy is something to be celebrated, not hidden. This series demonstrates these characteristics in abundance. The characters and the dialogue are wonderful. The sisters bicker as if they were teenagers. Fred and Mary Alice have never learned to like each other much, even after 40 years, which puts Patricia Anne in the middle often. Christmas adds an extra strain on everyone; Fred doesn’t want fresh greenery in the house, he considers it a fire hazard. Patricia Anne buys it anyway and waits for Fred to explode.
The gallery assistant’s twin sisters pop up at odd times, finishing each other’s sentences. Patricia Anne feels certain they know where their sister is. The scene where Patricia Anne finds them drunk and brings them home to keep them from driving is priceless. Fred is upset that she has brought strangers to his house and then decides they look adorable while they sleep off their hangover.
Throughout the perambulations of holiday preparations, Patricia Anne never loses sight of the fact there’s been a murder and a possible kidnapping. Equal parts Christmas story and well-plotted mystery. Readers of cozy mysteries who have not met the Southern Sisters should do so without delay. Those of you who remember them might want to schedule a series re-read as part of your New Year’s resolutions. Highly recommended.