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CARPE LIBRUM: Taking on a Wicca murder mystery series has never been more fun!

Jennifer David Hesse is one of two current writers who has snared Gwenyfar hooked, line and sinker.

Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.

Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title with an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.

maydaymurderMay Day Murder
By Jennifer David Hesse
Kensington Books, 2019, pgs. 325
C. X. Wood lives in Wilmington part-time. Regular readers of Carpe Librum might have noticed a couple of themes: One, I like mystery/suspense novels. Two, I tend to read  older books. There are a variety of reasons for both of those phenomena. The structure of a formula mystery is one I happen to enjoy.  I tend to like older books because I dwell more actively in the late 1960s than in 2019.  I prefer a life without cell phones, computers, and wherever possible, as few of the intrusions of modern life (like credit cards and paying bills) as possible. In other words, I want my escape reading to be escapism.

It is rare I have to wait for a book to come out. Jennifer David Hesse is one of two current writers who has snared me, hook, line and sinker. The other is S. J. Parris whose series about Giordano Bruno captured me over the winter.

“Yeah, I’m glad you won’t stop talking about your defrocked renaissance monk.” Anthony waffled a hand at me then smirked. “But your ‘Yuletide Homicide’ came in, too.”
I think the title excited him.

I found Hesse’s books quite by accident in the used bookstore in Pinehurst last winter. The second in the series, “Bell, Book & Candlemas,” had a VW Bug on the cover. Yep. I bought the book for the cover.

The first book in the series, “Midsummer Night’s Mischief,” turned out to be about a stolen First Folio of Shakespeare. I mean come on, I didn’t stand a chance. Like a lot of series writers, Hesse found her legs as the collection moved on and the books increased in complexity with characters’ growth and development. Though I loved “Midsummer Night’s Mischief,” the books later in the series really show off her skill as a writer.

These books are formula mystery novels, so like Diana Mott Davidson’s food books with recipes throughout, or the yarn shop mysteries with patterns interspersed in the pages, Hesse’s books center around a practicing witch.

Kelli Milanni is a successful attorney in the small Midwestern town of Edindale. Though she wears expensive pantsuits and jogs, she is a solitary practitioner of Wicca and wants to keep her secret safely and quietly locked in “the broom closet.” But she also wants to fall in love and build a life with the handsome Wes Callahan, so how can she hide such an important part of her life from him?

Over and over again, as Kelli faces problems with her mysteries and her personal life, she must turn to the resources that Wicca has taught her in order to solve questions. With “Samhain Secrets,” a number of loose ends from previous books were brought together, and in theory the series could have come to a satisfying conclusion.

So I was beside myself with delight to discover Hesse continued the books with the announcement of “May Day Murder.” Well, I thought. I shouldn’t have to wait too long—they will want to get it out in time for May 1.

In this book Hesse sets up a longer term mystery, which doesn’t get solved easily and starts a deeper exploration of some of the aspects of Wicca. It addresses the problem of adding human nature into any system of religious belief. What attracts someone to Wicca and why? How does it incorporate into one’s life—to the beauty of it? What are the potential pitfalls?

In a lot of ways Hesse’s Wiccan Wheel Mysteries remind me of Harry Kemelman’s Rabbi Small books. Kemelman wrote the 12-book series over three decades, and as his world and religious views changed so did the books. Rabbi Small, the series sleuth, used Talmudic reasoning to solve crimes alongside his best friend, the Irish-Catholic chief of police. Obviously, the books are a way of learning about daily Jewish life.

In much the same way, Hesse’s books take the glamour and shimmer away from Wicca. He shows a lot of daily life from mediation and moon phases for decision-making to Millani’s interpretation of the Wiccan Rede “An ye harm none do as thou wilt” to include a vegan lifestyle. Yes, rituals and spells work figure heavily in the books. Anyone curious to what they look like will find them easy to follow, as are descriptions of large Pagan festivals. But others who just want a really great mystery series with characters that deepen and grow, these are incredibly satisfying.

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