THE FACE ON THE WALL
By Jane Langton
291 pp., $21.95
In the early versions, Cinderella's wicked step-mother cuts off her daughters' toes to make the glass slipper fit.
Rumpelstiltskin doesn't just jump through the floor; he tears himself in half.
After the wolf eats Little Red Riding Hood, no hunter neatly removes her from the canine's belly.
Those Grimm stories are grim, indeed, not to mention the ghastly nursery rhymes about desperate poverty, collapsing bridges, and cannibalistic giants.
Jane Langton's "The Face on the Wall" reminds us that the horrible pleasure derived from a good mystery novel stems from those early, grisly tales.
Langton's latest Homer Kelly novel opens with a dream-come-true for Annie Swan: The new wing on her house boasts a 35-foot-long wall for her elaborate mural of the history of storytelling. Resting on the secure income from her last two children's books, Annie looks forward to quiet months of painting.
Of course, such peace is not to be had for Annie or her uncle, Homer Kelly, the disgruntled college professor who can't stop being a detective.
"Poor Homer," Langton sighs. "He had made a habit of stumbling over one dead body after another. Again and again he had been forced to set aside scholarship for the pursuit of psychopaths all over the state of Massachusetts, and in places as far-flung as Florence and Oxford."
While Annie sketches Peter Rabbit and Mother Goose, 12 miles away a domestic dispute turns deadly. Brutish Fred Small dreams of building a gated community of palatial homes on his wife's 99 acre pig farm. But Pearl won't relinquish her plans to create a forest paradise for wildlife. One night he cures her stubbornness with a bullet and begins practicing her signature.
Pearl's disappearance would have remained a minor note in the newspaper if Homer's wife hadn't remembered the name as one of her old students at Harvard. She immediately begins needling her husband to solve the case. "Homer Kelly had been Mary's husband for a long time," Langton notes. "Half a lifetime with a sensible wife had mellowed him a little. So had his experience with violent criminals."
Even as Homer reluctantly begins poking around the pig farm, another grisly scenario unfolds even closer to his niece. Having moved into her new addition, Annie rents the main house to a picture-perfect family, except that they're trying to murder their small son in a series of comically cruel accidents. When they finally succeed, they file a $2 million lawsuit against Annie.
Annie's only solace is to push ahead with her mural, but a ghastly face keeps appearing on the wall, as though to remind her that fairy tales and life aren't all curds and whey.
Coincidences start to gather like crows toward the end of the novel, but that's long been the connection between mystery and comedy. Langton knows how to propel her story forward with suspense even as she neatly braids clues and crimes with wit and horror.
"Oh Mrs. Langton, what good mysteries you write!"
"The better to entertain you with, my dear."
* Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor.