I had an epiphany while reading Emyl Jenkins’ very engaging novel: When did mystery become synonymous with murder mystery? There is nary a dead body in The Big Steal—quite definitely a change from the many books that come under the umbrella heading "mystery"—but the book doesn’t suffer a bit from the lack of blood and gore. In fact, it was a welcome change to realize that no body was going to turn up anywhere.
Jenkins’ heroine, Sterling Glass (who first appeared in Stealing with Style), is an expert antique appraiser. She’s been hired by an insurance company to investigate a burglary claim filed by a manor house in rural Orange County, Virginia, just a few hours from Leemont, where she lives.
Sterling immediately senses trouble at Wynderly (think any eccentric big house designed by any eccentric American millionaire), which was built by Hoyt Wynfield and his New Orleans-born bride, Mazie, and filled with their priceless finds from all over the world. The estate is ridden with money problems, and the house has been closed to the public for years. The inexperienced curator on the case is less than helpful, and board meetings and board members keep calling Sterling away from her investigation into what was stolen and what the items were worth. Everyone has his or her own agenda, and while merely frustrated at first, Sterling becomes increasingly intrigued.
Secret rooms, hidden diaries, a mysterious handwritten obituary and lots of antiques figure in the plot. This is Nancy Drew for adults, and both Sterling and her creator are aware of that. The 50-something Sterling fantasizes about being one of “Hitchcock’s seductive heroines,” and happily she has two attractive men interested in her. But she’s on her own for most of the action—and she’s up to the challenge.
Jenkins, herself an appraiser, starts every chapter with information about an antique that will be featured in that chapter, and an illustrated guide to antiques is included at the end of the book. The lucky reader gets to be educated as well as entertained in this lively, sophisticated mystery. I’m glad Jenkins remembered what I had forgotten: in a true mystery, dead bodies are optional.
Joanne Collings writes from Washington, D.C.