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The Tarot cards indicate that eventually, everyone involved will be in danger. Jill does not believe the cards, but as it turns out, perhaps she should have. Whether by coincidence or mystical connection, they prove to be right.
This is the second Jill Szekely mystery, and like the first, Dorothea in the Miirror, it is an Agatha Christie-type puzzler rather than a thriller. Yet it offers plenty of action, too, as the co-op members invade the old farmhouse on a mission to find and rescue Renee, and then Jill must manage another rescue of a friend incarcerated in a spooky asylum.
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Within an hour of Jill's arrival at the university, her old friend Renee Corliss goes missing, taking one of her children with her and abandoning the other child. This is doubly puzzling since Renee had looked forward to visiting with Jill.
Strange things were already happening at the Brook Farm Co-op when Jill arrived to do graduate work. There had been two recent deaths and the apparent kidnapping of a neighbor's baby. So when Jill's old friend Renee goes missing, along with her three-year-old child, Ethan, Jill knows she must do something about it. Though a reluctant sleuth, Jill feels she is at least more knowledgeable than her friend Alison, who proposes to find their mutual friend by using Tarot cards.
Jill soon becomes enmeshed in the swirl of events at her new home, as Renee's Missing in Action boyfriend turns up after four years in an Israeli kibbutz. Though he denies knowledge of Renee's whereabouts, the police don't believe him and when he becomes their prime suspect, he too appeals to Jill for help. Meanwhile, Alison's Tarol cards have led tne co-op members on a spooky farmhouse search which Jill is lured to participate in.
"Mama, Renee is gone." Alison's tearful child clung to her mother.
"Gone? What do you mean, gone?"
"She goned herself, and Ethan too.
She took Ethan to the bathroom at the rest stop and they never came back. Me and Rhoda stayed in the car and we waited and waited..."
"Never mind, Chrissie, we'll find them." Alison hugged the distraught youngster. "They have to be someplace."
Amazon.com book review by Linda Schroeder
With The Brook Farm Murders, Lois Wells Santalo brings her reluctant detective Jill Szekely back for another round, this time not so much to unravel a mystery for us as to prevent tragedy from happening. In this second Szekely story, Santalo again brings 1948 post World War 11 America to us with interesting details--a time when ladies wore hats and gloves, when Clark Gable and Harry Truman made news, when marriage was mandated as a prerequisite for sex, and when a few hardy individuals clung to the notions established by the nineteenth-century Brook Farm commune which Emerson and Thoreau, to name two, brought into being. Of course, those of us who lived through the hippie communes of the 1960's already smelled doom in the air for Jill and the Michigan Brook Farm with the mention of shared gardens and equal work loads for all.
In this story, Jill, separated from her concert pianist husband, has returned to the University of Michigan to teach and do graduate work. She anticipates a protected, scholarly environment, but instead finds herself in hostile territory at the commune of Brook Farm when she agrees to work in the farm's library in exchange for room and board. Santalo's Brook Farm reels from mysterious deaths, a kidnapping, and hate directed at handicapped children who reside at the Farms residential school. Santalo embeds in this mystery a vivid picture of the philosophy of eugenics, the "belief that our world can't afford to maintain the seriously handicapped" or compromise the "gene pool" with less than perfect individuals. It is a philosophy which mandates actions without mercy and Santalo follows this philosophy down the inevitable road to personal human tragedy. Along the way, in true detective novel fashion, we are treated to suspect after suspect, each with reason to kill or kidnap.
In a fun structure, Santalo used a reading of Tarot cards to move the plot. The story is cast down as are cards in a Tarot spread. One by one the cards actually prove to be harbingers of danger. One by one Jill sees the connections of events to the cards' predictions, until the final card, the Tower, propels her to risk the lives of the handicapped children in order to save them. That Tower card provides a great finale for this novel, with its prediction of danger escalating to reality in this very well done, action packed climax. And throughout the novel, Santalo is creative in tweaking our curiosity about the original Brook Farm, the newsmakers of 1948, and the philosophy of eugenics.
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