Carolyn Hart Critical Essays

Carolyn Gimpel


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Carolyn Hart unfailingly provides cozy, reader-friendly mysteries that project underlying values with wide appeal. The stories imply that most people are basically good and desire community, that love is the power behind positive action, and that evil flourishes in the absence of love. This perspective may seem simplistic, but the strong characterization and detailed setting Hart provides give life to the novels. Many current female mystery writers present a wounded heroine who is trying to come to terms with her own trauma while helping others. Annie Darling is whole; Henrie O has been wounded, but her grief is in the past and has made her more compassionate.

The presence of the gothic, sometimes hovering in the margins, sometimes organic to Hart’s novels, implies that there are some things that cannot, and should not, be explained. Her works have a southern feel to them, containing the sense of fatality and inescapability that surfaces in southern thought and a reliance on women’s intuition. Her work, like much writing with a gothic slant, has an implied metaphysical or spiritual dimension, in which supernatural events may suggest a perspective beyond that of humans. Although her novels would certainly not be called religious, their sense of poetic justice contributes to the suggestion of spirituality.

Readers find Hart’s novels are addictive for a number of reasons: the sensitive and generous main characters, the sense of escape they get on visiting Broward’s Island or Hart’s other settings, the multiple allusions to other detective novels, and the direct and indirect comments on the genre. Some readers may find the references to other mysteries and the genre annoying, but Hart’s fans delight in it, and it helps differentiate her work.

One of Hart’s strengths is that she leaves herself open for changes in direction; therefore, her novels are not predictable, except for the series conventions such as the mystery chat and the recurrent contests in the Death on Demand series. Hart is one of the heirs of the Agatha Christie tradition, but she possesses a flexible frame of vision. She has also written some nonseries novels, mystery and otherwise, and novels for children.

White Elephant Dead

White Elephant Dead (1999) is a typical Death on Demand mystery, set like the others on Broward’s Rock, a fictional sea island community off the South Carolina coast. Katherine Girard is murdered while apparently collecting donations for a White Elephant sale; however, it soon becomes clear that she was visiting the houses of the wealthy for blackmail purposes. Henny Brawley, bookstore owner Annie Darling’s friend, was injured at the time of the murder, and the dull-witted but arrogant police chief suspects her of the murder. Annie and her husband, Max, follow a trail of puzzling clues to find the real killer. The plot involves revealing the secrets of those on...

(The entire section is 1202 words.)