Death on a Starry Night
Death on a Starry Night is the third and latest Nora Barnes & Toby Sandler mystery in the series written by Betsy Draine and Michael Hinden. As with the other volumes, it’s full of art and travel knowledge in a place it sounds wonderful to visit.
Nora Barnes is an art historian who travels to amazing locations with her husband, Toby, where they find murders. In the first book, Murder in Lascaux, Nora and Toby are two of only six people in the famous French caves holding the ancient paintings that are the world’s oldest art. They become suspects when another of the visitors is murdered. The twisty story combines a lot of fascinating topics:
- a visit to an historic chateau
- cooking classes for French cuisine
- rumors of hidden, stolen Nazi art
- a medieval cult
- Nora’s study of a trailblazing female artist who worked in the late 1800s
The Body in Bodega Bay, the second book, gives us more information on Toby’s occupation as an antique dealer. His new business partner’s body is found in a derelict boat in the harbor, and Toby feels compelled to get involved, quoting The Maltese Falcon: “When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it.”
The setting is Bodega Bay, a small community near San Francisco where Alfred Hitchcock filmed The Birds, and some storyboards for that film play a role in the mystery. There’s also a Russian icon, an old picture of an angel, that’s part of a long-lost triptych, and a visit from Nora’s sister Angie.
This series is published by University of Wisconsin Press, and the co-authors are former English professors there, so I shouldn’t be surprised that one of the side motives of the villain is hatred of the budget cuts Wisconsin governor Scott Walker imposed on the university and his anti-union, anti-tenure efforts. I was tickled to see that appear, because it all did make a lot of people very angry.
The newest book, Death on a Starry Night, sends the pair back to France, this time to the Rivera area, and again accompanied by Nora’s sister, who’s on a spiritual quest. They’re attending a conference sponsored by the Society for Vincent van Gogh Studies.
The famous painter committed suicide, but new theories are circulating that he might have been killed. (There’s a welcome Afterword that explains how much of this story is true, including the book that introduced the murder theory, and what inspired the authors.) An older woman with family papers relevant to this debate is killed at the opening conference dinner. As the police and the couple investigate, they and we learn more about a number of the artists associated with the area, including Renoir and Matisse.
Each of these volumes makes me want to visit their settings, because they’re so great at evoking their distinctive locations. They’re great reads by, for, and featuring brainy people, both fun and educational. (The publisher provided a review copy.)