Anne Scott’s first novel has all the earmarks of a classic mystery story, but in the end, it provides satisfaction as much for what it does not do as for what the novelist does in this haunting tale of decadence and intrigue. The heroine, Elizabeth Oliver, finds she has taken on more than she bargained for in agreeing to manage the estate sale at Calpurnia, a once-prestigious Main Line mansion in Philadelphia. The home of the recently deceased bohemian artist Maribel Davies, Calpurnia is now a dilapidated relic.
As she prepares for the sale, Elizabeth becomes increasingly fascinated with the way the house has served as a focal point for the lives of the nephews and nieces, and the only son, of the alternatively charismatic and reprehensible Davies. Her work puts her in contact with the deceased artist’s family, a group whose personal lives are full of secrets. Hints of marital infidelity, pornography, and shady business dealings emerge in her conversations with family members and a nosy neighbor. There are hints that Davies did not die of natural causes; who may have taken her life, and why? Though the question is tantalizing, in the end Elizabeth chooses not to pursue interests that might be embarrassing to the family, and Calpurnia’s treasures and trash are sent off with eager buyers who decimate the estate like so many vultures feeding off the carcass of a once-proud animal. There is no hair-raising denouement; instead, the heroine walks away from the house and its history, leaving intact the dignity and privacy of those associated with it.
A novel that begins in a manner similar to a work by mystery writer P. D. James ends up resembling one by Henry James. A principal question raised by Scott is the value and purpose of art. Calpurnia offers subtle character delineation, suspenseful plotting, and ultimately a commentary on human nature that is both thoughtful and provocative. For the insights it provides, Scott’s first novel deserves high praise.