REVIEW: Fundraising the Dead

Note: This review originally appeared in The Season E-Zine's October mystery section.

Fundraising the Dead by Sheila Connolly
Berkley Prime Crime, October 2010

Rating: 9 (Excellent) (The Season's rating scale runs from 1 to 10.)

For fans of: Julie Hyzy

Eleanor "Nell" Pratt has her hands full. The Pennsylvania Antiquarian Society is celebrating its 125th anniversary in grand style, and as Director of Development (aka chief fundraiser), it's Nell's job to make sure the event goes off without a hitch. It's hardly good timing, then when mere hours before the guests are scheduled to arrive, board member Marty Terwilliger bursts into Nell's office and drops a bombshell into her lap: a folder full of George Washington's correspondence has disappeared. Nell's positive the letters have been misfiled, but looks into the problem to appease Marty -- only to discover that no only are the letters nowhere to be found, but millions of dollars' worth of additional documents and artifacts have gone missing, as well. And then, to make matters worse, Alfred Findley -- the Society's archivist, and the only other staff member who knows the true extent of the thefts -- is found dead. The police are convinced the death was an accident, but Nell isn't so sure. Can Nell unmask the thief and catch Alfred's killer in time to save the reputation of her beloved society -- and to prevent herself from becoming the next victim?

Fundraising the Dead is the first in Sheila Connolly's new Museum Mystery series, and if the debut is any indication of what's to come, the cozy world is in for a treat. Simply put, this book is a fantastic read. The plot is intricate, the mystery is clever, and the clues are subtle and artfully deployed. Connolly's prose is skillful and sharp, and her character development is first-rate.

You wouldn't think a historical society fundraiser would make a terribly compelling protagonist, but Connolly has created a capable and charming heroine in Nell. Nell's in good company here, too; Fundraising the Dead is full of strong, smart female characters who think and do for themselves: tenacious board member Marty, rich and seductive Libby, cantankerous bulldog Doris -- the list goes on and on. And that's not to say that the men in this book aren't marvelous characters in their own right -- sexy Society president Charles Worthington begs comparison to Thomas Crown, and Agent James Morrison may be the best fictional FBI agent/potential love interest I've read since Victoria Laurie introduced Dutch Rivers.

The Society itself never quite come to live during the course of this tale; I found I never had a clear understanding of the Society's workings, nor was I ever able to form a picture in my head as to its appearance or layout. That's a minor quibble, though, and given Connolly's attention to detail, it's one that will likely be addressed as the series progresses.

Fundraising the Dead is a rarity in today's cozy scene: a smart book populated with intelligent people. It's a wonderful and welcome entrant to the genre, and I eagerly anticipate the release of future Museum Mysteries.