In her new novel starring Philadelphia schoolteacher Amanda Pepper, Gillian Roberts once again mixes mystery and mirth. This time Roberts explores Philadelphia's unique flesh and blood "historical monument"-- the Mummers, who live (and perhaps are willing to die) for a few hours of glory every New Year's Day.
The famous Mummers' Parade is an extravaganza that draws enormous crowds who cheer through chattering teeth, as more than thirty thousand clowns, string bands, and fancy brigades strut their stuff up Broad Street. But this year, while the music blares and the Mummers dance, a reveling Pierrot suddenly sinks to the ground, shot dead.
Amanda is, at first, only a horrified spectator. But when the prime suspect--her friend and fellow teacher at Philly Prep--falsely claims to have been with her at the time of the murder, Amanda can no longer stay on the sidelines.
Is the murder a flare-up of deadly rivalries? Is it connected with the disappearance, the week before Christmas, of another Mummer, the heir to a meat-packing family? Does someone disapprove of the Mummers' feathers, sequins, and string bands? And why is no one in the tight-knit world Amanda investigates willing to tell the truth about anything?
With Amanda on the scene, the who in whodunit doesn't stay secret for long. In The Mummers' Curse, Gillian Roberts is, as always, at the head of the parade.
The head, overshadowed by its costume, looked toylike.
Another frame suit approached. I scanned for Vincent Devaney, but it was impossible to distinguish features with collars and panels blowing every which way. And, in fact, I didn’t know if Vincent was wearing a frame. He had worked on one with a friend, but they had also worked on a regular suit, deciding to toss at the last moment for who would wear which.
Karen’s teeth chattered. I sniffed the hollow smell of approaching snow. Enough was enough. I couldn’t spot Vincent, even though I knew this was his club, but I could nonetheless compliment him on his splendor. Time to go enjoy another all-American tradition, like central heating. “After C.K. gets back,” I said, “it might be a good time to—”
“Not l-l-leave,” the wanna-be Mummer wailed. “I’m n-n-not cold!”
“I don’t want us to get sick, and—” I became aware of a rising murmur across Broad Street, a something-is-happening sound. I expected to see an overturned or wrecked frame suit, but I didn’t.
People pressed forward. The noise level increased.
Mackenzie returned, both hands holding hot dogs.
“I c-c-can’t see!” Karen wailed. We’d lost our vantage point as people jostled for a better view of…something.
Mackenzie passed me the franks and lifted her onto his shoulders, making her a human periscope. “Now, can you?” he asked.
“Yes, but there’s only the same stuff.” She’d stopped stuttering, but now she sounded peevish. The noise across the way became less diffused, sharper, marked by shouts. “And people pointing.”
“At what?” Mackenzie asked with more interest than he’d heretofore demonstrated.
“At the barrel-man,” Karen said. I assumed she meant a frame suit. “He’s disappearing.”
Mackenzie sounded frustrated. He did not like viewing things secondhand, but at the moment, his sight line was blocked not only by an enormous man who’d moved in front of him but also by Karen’s mittened hands, which she held across his eyes.
“Yes,” she said. “No. He’s not falling down. His head is.”
And then I, too, saw it—just as spectators on the other side screamed and surged onto the street. The gryphon-headdress sank, lower and lower, until the man’s face was swallowed by his frame. His headpiece banged on the suit, ostrich feathers and golden sequins skewed and wobbling. The pearly lace tent swayed but stopped moving, and as if a contagious and debilitating disease had spread out from it, the other marchers, in ragged sequence, slowed, then stopped, and the music of the hired band dribbled to a halt.
I looked at the other Mummers, tried to make them out, but their disguises worked and I had no clue as to whether I was seeing Vincent Devaney.
“Is there a doctor here?” a voice shouted from the ranks of the Mummers. “Heart attack! Help!”
His words carried on the wind. The unnatural silence had slowly spread backward up Broad Street as clubs and spectators realized something was wrong.
A woman pulled free of the crowd, a young boy holding on to her hand. She lifted a silver-embroidered panel and put the boy’s hand on it, as if mooring him, while she ducked under, inside. How strange, I thought, to have to examine a man with a cloth-covered jungle gym on his shoulders. I wondered for how long the noise, the wind, the wheels, and the strong support of his suit would carry along a man having a heart attack, a man who was unable to gesticulate or to be heard above the music and the crowd.
The woman climbed back out, shaking her head. Now, the area grew preternaturally quiet as everyone leaned forward to hear. Mackenzie quietly transferred Karen back to the ground. I could sense his muscles tighten inside the parka.
The doctor’s words rippled across the street, carried on dozens of voices. “Sorry. Sorry. Sorry.”
Dead, dead, dead. The word was passed with dull finality. “Dead” in near-whispers that reverberated as each person took hold and transferred the word to the next.
I wondered how the doctor had reached her conclusion so quickly. Had she tried to revive him? Used CPR? How could she be so sure?
Someone may have asked her that, because she put up a hand. Once again, her words were relayed back and across, making what she said all the stranger and more upsetting.
“This man was shot.”
Shot! Shot! Shot!
It seemed impossible. He’d been in the midst of hundreds of thousands of people for hours, and not uninterested passersby, but spectators watching him, his chest surrounded by steel rods, wooden framing, and cloth.
But it had happened. The Shooter had been shot.