Book Review: 'There Was an Old Woman' by Hallie Ephron
Review by Susan Grigsby There Was an Old Woman by Hallie Ephron Published by William Morrow April 2, 2013 304 pages
I first encountered Hallie Ephron, novelist and book reviewer for the Boston Globe, at the Mystery Writers of America workshop a couple of years ago. When I discovered that this book was available in an audio format I jumped on it and am very glad that I did. The narrator, Nan McNamara, did a good job of reflecting the suspense in this cosy mystery set in a neighborhood of the Bronx that feels like a small town.
“Higgs Point” is an old neighborhood surrounded by salt marsh and populated with shotgun houses that share a stunning view across the East River and Long Island Sound, to the Manhattan skyline. Evie Ferrante grew up there before moving to Manhattan where she became a curator for an Historical Society. Currently hard at work on an exhibit about historical fires, she receives a call from her sister, advising her that it is her turn to return to the family home and care for their alcoholic mother who has been rushed to the hospital.
The house in Higgs Point has become unrecognizable as the home in which Evie and Ginger grew up. Littered with empty cat food cans (their mother hates cats) and liquor bottles, the house is a mess. The yard is unkept and the car in her mother's garage won't start. Puzzled at the sudden change, Evie is further unsettled by the unctuous neighbor across the street. And then she finds the envelopes filled with cash.
It is Mina Yetner, her mother's neighbor, that Evie turns to as an ally. Mina, at ninety is still sharp as a tack, and her house, which she shares with her cat Ivory, is immaculate. Together, the two women begin to puzzle out some of the other mysterious changes that have taken place in the old neighborhood.
The best suspense novels are based in the ordinary and Hallie Ephron very skillfully uses everyday activities to create that suspense. Mina fears that her memory may be fading, as she has no memories of the things that her nephew assures her that she has said and done. Little things, like losing the whistle top of her tea kettle, or misplacing her purse. It is his suggestion that she explore assisted living facilities, and sign papers for a reverse mortgage that would help pay for one.
Step by step, the suspense builds, and even though the reader knows what is coming, the participants don't, and watching them work their way through the mystery is compelling. This is not a complex or dark work, but an engaging cozy that deals with family, aging, neighborhoods in transition, history and friendship and is very hard to put down.
Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here.