In 1959, a young husband returns to his cabin in the Appalachian hills to find his bride having sex with his best friend. In a rage, he stabs both and proceeds to play a haunting fiddle tune while they lie at his feet, bleeding to death. Later, because he plays the same disturbing song night after night on death row, he comes to be known as Fiddlesticks. And in the decades after the crime, the cabin becomes a camping destination for adventure-seeking college kids—like the ex-governor’s daughter, Lisa Wilson, who stays overnight with a group of friends at the creepy shack in the woods. When she is found the next morning gruesomely slain under a pine tree, the North Carolina town of Hartsville struggles for answers, and attorney Mary Crow finds herself with another unforgettable case on her hands.
Nashville native Sallie Bissell’s fifth Mary Crow mystery, Music of Ghosts, instantly draws readers in with this chilling connection between a notorious fifty-year-old crime and the shocking contemporary slaying of a politician’s daughter. Lisa Wilson and her friends are all interns at the Pisgah Raptor Rescue Center, working for rehabilitator Dr. Nicholas Stratton, a handsome, highly educated university instructor who plays the fiddle. After investigators hear faint fiddle notes on the interns’ camcorder tape from the night of the murder—one of them had hoped to sell the video to a TV show about ghosts—the district attorney has Stratton indicted for the crime.
Mary Crow, a former prosecutor and the best attorney in town, has a drama of her own unfolding: her live-in boyfriend, Jonathan Walkingstick, is being sued by his former in-laws for custody of his nine-year-old daughter Lily, whom he and Mary have raised. And Mary is the reason why. Years ago, Lily’s disturbed mother Ruth came at her friend Mary with a gun, and when the gun fired as Mary defended herself, it was Ruth who took the bullet.
Though Mary promised Jonathan years ago she wouldn’t take murder cases, she desperately wants to help a man she believes to be innocent. She digs into the facts of the case just as the former governor muddies the water with a press conference offering a million-dollar reward. “Mary Crow sat at her desk, eating a chicken salad sandwich from Sadie’s coffee shop,” Bissell writes. “She’d spent most of the last night and much of the morning going over [the DA’s] evidence. She’d watched the ghost movie three times. It started off as a bunch of college kids explored an old cabin, then ended as strangely beautiful fiddle music lured Lisa Wilson out the door, to her death. … Who was to say it wasn’t one of the interns, who’d sneaked out underneath range of the camera? Who was to say one of them hadn’t brought recorded fiddle music, and played it to lure Lisa out of that cabin? Who was to say it wasn’t some fiddling loony tune who saw the kids and decided to have a little homicidal fun?”
Like Sharyn McCrumb, Vicki Lane, and others, Bissell sets her thrillers in the Appalachian Mountains, a bonus for Southern lovers of the genre, and weaves Cherokee references and history into Music of Ghosts. Her writing is strong and clear, wonderfully descriptive without being self-conscious. And her story is engrossing in the way that a good mystery should be. All of which is to say that readers will be glad Mary Crow is back.
Sallie Bissell will discuss Music of Ghosts at Union Ave. Books in Knoxville at 6 p.m. on May 13, and at Mysteries & More in Nashville on June 15 at 2 p.m.