Susan B. Bernhardt is one of those authors a reader waits with anticipation for her next release. Well, the wait is over. With Dress to Kill, her 7th cozy and the second book in the Irina Curtius series, Ms. Bernhardt has reaffirmed her position as Queen of the Cozy.
Cozies are known for featuring an abundance of palatable dishes besides the anticipated murder(s). In Bernhardt’s oeuvre both are present. What distinguishes her stories from the run-of-the-mill cozy is her interjection of art into the plots.
If the story takes someone to a museum, the character rhapsodizes over a painting by one of the great masters, thus giving the reader a lesson in art history. In the case of Dress to Kill, Irina, the lead sleuth, summarizes the plot of La Sylphide, a ballet whose opening night she’s attending at the New York City Ballet.
We learn this is a romantic ballet centering on unrequited love. James, a farmer betrothed to Effie, abandons her when he falls in love with a sylph, a fairy-like creature with delicate wings. Tricked by a Witch who has created a “magic scarf,” James places the scarf around the sylph’s shoulders. This makes the wings fall off and the sylph dies. James ends up in despair as he loses both Effie and his illusive sylph.
In a case of art imitating life, opening night ends in gloom when one of Irina’s friends, the wardrobe supervisor, is found dead backstage. The scarf she was wearing has become entangled in the conveyor belt mechanism where she meticulously hangs the costumes after a performance. The coroner reports the death as an accident, a case of “ligature strangulation.”
Irina recognizes the scarf, a one-of a-kind design she’s seen before. She doesn’t believe her friend’s death is an accident and is determined to find the mystery behind the scarf and the culprit for the murder.
As she gets on with the investigation, the pressures on her mount. Charles, her long-time boyfriend, wants to take the relationship to another level; Jerome, her part-time pianist at the school of dance where she teaches children, is undergoing a physical and psychological transformation. Kay Driscoll, a cousin she hasn’t seen in a while, is due to visit with her husband Phil. Irina wants to make time for them. All of them. They need her, including her friend whose death she’s determined to solve.
To complicate matters, Irina’s son surprises her with an introduction to someone from her past she’d rather forget about. Avoiding spoiler alert, this reviewer will not reveal the identity of the character; however, as an advice to the son, next time he wants to surprise his mother he should think of flowers, or perhaps a season subscription to the ballet, certainly something to elicit pleasure rather than trauma.
Despite this distraction, the issue of her friend’s mysterious death continues to weigh on Irina’s mind. She hardly has any time to deal with it so she comes up with a plan. Since Kay is a known sleuth in Sudbury Falls where she lives, Irina hopes she will be of help. Bernhardt, however, keeps Kay’s involvement to a minimum, just the right amount but not too much that it would take the glory off of Irina solving the case by herself. This she does but not before she places her own life at risk. She barely escapes the wicked ways of the scarf she had recognized and its evil designer.
Although the mystery character introduced by the son will remain anonymous, something worth reminding readers is the story of Isadora Duncan, an American dancer who performed to great acclaim in this country and all over Europe. Her life came to an unfortunate end when her long, hand-painted silk scarf designed by a Russian artist became entangled in the wheels and axle of the car in which she was riding in Nice, France.
In the case of Ms. Duncan her death was a careless act of vanity perhaps. Because of the cold weather, a friend who saw her get on the open-air vehicle warned her to wear a cape. Isadora would only agree to a scarf.
In Dress to Kill , death by a scarf is not a case of vanity but of jealousy gone awry. As readers turn the pages, they will delight in Bernhardt’s elegant and supple prose, which never goes flat. Occasionally, a ripple of fury bursts forth, especially in sections where danger is imminent, and excitement increases.
From now on, this reviewer will associate La Sylphide with Bernhardt’s Dress to Kill.
I couldn’t recommend the book highly enough to both lovers of cozis and ballet aficionados If you haven’t gotten your copy yet, rush to get it. You’ll be glad you did.
One final warning, next time someone offers you a one-of-a-kind, long-flowing silk scarf, turn it down. Your neck might be at stake.