Painted to Death
Publication date: January 10th 2023
Genres: Adult, Cozy Mystery
Sam Green is an art student with some pretty creative habits when it comes to solving mysteries, in this new series from author and artist Sarah Vernon. It’s the coldest part of a Boston winter when her friend Catherine is found dead in the painting studios one evening. The police are quick to rule her death a suicide, but Sam knows that something doesn’t seem right. Despite the protests of her friends Rebecca and Stephanie (although — happily — with the help of her crush Arun), Sam starts to poke around the old art department building. Peering into the dark corners of studios and underneath piles of musty art supplies, Sam soon uncovers some surprising suspects and motives behind Catherine’s death, in an art department simmering with artistic jealousy, resentment, and more relationship drama than a daytime talk show could handle. The only question is, will Sam be able to find out who killed Catherine before that person finds Sam?
It was a dark and stormy night. Yeah, for real. That’s how I’m starting, because why mess with what works?
Also, it really was dark and stormy the night this all started, the wind bursting in through all the tiny cracks around the old, barely insulated windows of our triple-decker apartment. I say started, but this was actually a couple of weeks after Catherine had died. I just thought I’d start right in the middle of it, because we all know the worst Agatha Christies are the ones where Poirot doesn’t even come into it until page seventy-five, and you have to first get through hours and hours of slow English family drama, or worse, a bumbling English inspector.
We were huddled in the living room, with Benny on the floor leaning against the coffee table, and Rebecca, Mel, and me on the couches, mugs of mulled wine steaming in our hands. We would have all preferred to be outside smoking, the distraction of a cigarette easing the conversation, but there’s that dark and stormy night again. Plus, our landlord had recently made it harder to disarm the smoke alarm, so no more smoking inside either.
So here we were, trying to have a casual conversation about a topic that defies casual conversation. Mel – the kind of roommate we weren’t quite close to yet, who still attached herself to any kind of group activity at our apartment – was trying hard to make everyone smile, telling unfunny jokes and keeping the wine topped up. Rebecca had taken the comforting aunt approach, keeping her hand on Benny’s shoulder while he told us about his afternoon.
“I just feel like they weren’t even asking the right questions,” he was saying. “It’s like, the cops didn’t ask about her family much at all – what kind of mood she had been in. All they wanted to know was things like, did she have a boyfriend?” Rebecca tutted and leaned down to pat his back. “I mean, what is this, twenty years ago? Do they still only go for the boyfriend?” Benny frowned into his cup, the steam blurring his glasses.
In fairness, people are still most often killed by their immediate loved ones. And twenty years ago is not all that long ago. But forgive Benny’s nearsightedness; in fairness, at twenty-two, it was essentially a lifetime to him.
“What did you tell them?” Mel wanted to know.
Rebecca and I shot her a sharp look, but she was innocently fiddling with her hair, short and newly dyed lavender, and wouldn’t meet our eyes. Benny had called us as soon as the police had finished interviewing him, desperate for our company and already on his way over. We had all agreed it would be best not to ask for specifics, but Mel was apparently determined to be as annoying as ever.
“Obviously the truth,” Benny replied. “That she had dated a few different people so far this year, but none was particularly serious. And really,” he continued indignantly, “even if someone had been a serious boyfriend, how can they actually think that proves anything? All that shows, I think, is how easy it was to love her.”
Benny’s chin dropped to his chest and Rebecca was immediately on the floor next to him, her arm around his back. I swear she actually said, “There, there.”
“Sam, maybe you can get out some extra blankets? Benny, why don’t you just spend the night here, on the couch?” Rebecca looked at me expectantly.
“Of course,” I said, a clap of thunder accentuating my voice. “It’s way too stormy out for you to go anywhere, anyway.” I got up, dragging Mel with me. “Mel, help me get the blankets down.”
She followed me, obviously reluctantly, out into the hall. I opened the door to the hall closet, still holding onto her arm.
“Sam, what’s up? Let go of me,” she whined. I rolled my eyes.
“What was all that back there?” I hissed. “We agreed we weren’t going to ask him for specifics. Benny’s been through enough as it is – we don’t have to make him relive everything.”
Her eyes grew wide, an expression of innocence we were familiar with, as Mel always proclaimed that she was never the one who left dirty dishes out or forgot to buy toilet paper. It was frankly gross that she would try to pull the same crap here, in the middle of a murder investigation.
“Sorry, I didn’t think it was prying just to ask what he answered to one question,” she said, still in her most exasperating whine. “And come on, Sam, it’s not like you’re not curious. Benny was her best friend. Basically her brother! Who else is going to know what’s really going on?”
“But you don’t need to know what’s going on,” I said, reaching up to the top shelf for an extra quilt. “If the police want to call you up and tell you everything they’ve found out in the past two weeks, they’ll do that. You don’t have to ask Benny for the recap.” I pushed the quilt into her arms, turning back for sheets.
“Fine,” Mel said. “I’m sorry. But for the record, I’ve heard you and Rebecca whispering. I know I’m not the only one who wants answers.” This last word she delivered in a true crime podcast-perfect whisper.
Sarah Vernon is an author and artist based in Massachusetts, where she writes the Triple-Decker Mystery Series.