A Novena for Murder

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9780684180878: A Novena for Murder

Readers have come to delight in the murder-solving exploits of septuagenarian Sister Mary Helen, a nun with a nose for trouble. Publishers Weekly calls the Sister Mary Helen Mysteries "refreshingly different". Once you meet this spry, clever sleuth, you'll want to make a habit of reading her adventures again and again.

Sister Mary Helen isn't ready for retirement. Instead she's arrived at a San Francisco women's college to teach history and perhaps shake things up. An earthquake does that before she can, and amid the rubble lies a body. An "Act of God" is not responsible for the death, but rather murder. One of Sister Helen's fellow nuns begins a novena to St. Dismas, "the Good Thief" predicting the saint will reveal the murderer within nine days. Sure enough the police soon nab a suspect...but Sister Mary Helen believes it's the wrong man and begins her own pursuit of the killer. Her motive is justice...and her inspiration, simply divine.

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About the Author:

Sister Carol Anne O'Marie has been a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet for the past fifty years. She ministers to homeless women at a daytime drop-in center in downtown Oakland, California, which she co-founded in 1990. She has written ten novels featuring Sister Mary Helen.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

First Day
They were in the far corner of the Community Room playing pinochle when it happened. Sister Mary Helen remembered that distinctly. As usual, Sister Eileen was her partner. Over the years they had played together so often it seemed like an unfair advantage. That was why she waited for Sister Cecilia. The college president would undoubtedly be as shrewd at cards as she was at managing the college.
Furthermore, it would be good for Cecilia to relax. Mary Helen smiled. “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country.” Somehow, Cecilia always reminded her of General Motors. At least, that was the way Cecilia ran Mount St. Francis College for Women.
Sister Mary Helen looked around. The spacious room had a comfortable Sunday-evening hum. The nuns sat in small groups chatting, knitting, playing Chinese checkers. A band of devoted television watchers had gathered at one end. No Cecilia. She must be out at some meeting or other.
Mary Helen felt a twinge of guilt when she snagged Sister Anne for the fourth. The young nun looked nervous, but she’d catch on quickly. Anyone who could master all those guitar chords could certainly remember a few card tricks.
Mary Helen had just taken the bid when it happened. All she needed for a double pinochle was one Jack of Diamonds, and she was positive from the way Sister Eileen’s bushy, gray eyebrows shot up that her old friend had it.
At first Mary Helen suspected Sister Anne of jiggling the card table. She was about to ask her to stop when a low, dull rumble filled the long room. Then a small crack raced along the ceiling and the parquet floor began to undulate. Earthquake, she thought in horror, watching the carved statue of St. Joseph teeter on its pedestal. The hanging lamps swinging in unison added a tinny, clinking sound almost like breaking glass. Both door jambs swayed left, then right, then stopped. Mary Helen held her breath. Suddenly, everything was strangely still.
“St Emydius, preserve us from earthquake.” Sister Therese’s high-pitched scream tore through the quiet.
Slowly, Mary Helen exhaled. As if by some silent signal, the other nuns in the room burst into chatter. Good old Emydius seems to have done his job, Mary Helen thought, glancing at the sisters’ shock-white faces. We may not be very calm, but at least we are preserved!
“We’d better check the main college building. Someone may be up there,” Sister Anne said hoarsely, rushing toward the front door of the Sisters’ Residence.
“It’s Sunday.” Mary Helen prided herself on logic.
“You can never tell. Somebody may be there. And what about Luis?”
Luis! Mary Helen had forgotten about the young janitor. Grabbing her jacket, she followed Anne. Sister Eileen was close behind.
Outside, the trio paused on the front stoop. The night was still and calm, almost balmy. A lone star fell. Its fiery tail streaked the blackness for an instant, then disappeared. Earthquake weather, Mary Helen was about to say, but she remembered that meteorologists claimed there was no such thing.
Anne grinned. “It’s still there,” she said, pointing up the hill.
Several hundred feet above them, crowning the top of the hill, the massive main building of Mount St. Francis College for Women stood intact. Floodlights shot through the darkness, coloring the stone building almost chartreuse.
“And looking like something out of a gothic mystery novel,” Mary Helen couldn’t resist saying.
The interior of the ornate building was dark except for a light on the first floor. Sister Eileen checked her wristwatch. “Eight-thirty, Sunday night. That is exactly where Luis should be cleaning. We’d better make sure he’s all right.”
The three nuns hurried up the moon-flooded driveway. The loose gravel crunching under their feet was the only sound breaking the stillness.
On the top step, just outside the main entrance, a slight young man leaned against one of the lions flanking the doorway. He was trembling. Beads of perspiration wet his forehead.
“Luis, are you okay?” Sister Anne reached out and pried the pushbroom loose from his clenched hand.
“Yeah, Sister.” Thick eyeglasses magnified Luis’s terrified eyes.
Gently Sister Anne led him to the top step. “Sit down. You look pale.”
Pale! To Mary Helen, his thin face looked absolutely green. As a matter of fact, in this grotesque lighting, they all looked a little green.
“Are you sure you aren’t hurt?” Anne asked, settling down on the stone step beside him.
Luis had just opened his mouth when a scream ricocheted through the blackened foyer. Mary Helen’s stomach gave a sickening lurch. Eileen whirled toward the front door just as a young woman burst through.
“Marina, dear, what is it?” Sister Eileen recognized Professor Villanueva’s secretary immediately.
“Come, please! Quick!” Marina pulled at the old nun’s jacket, urging her into the building. “The professor’s hurt.” As she spoke, her slim body began to shudder.
Eileen grabbed the young woman by the shoulders and eased her onto the top step next to Luis. “Breathe deeply,” she ordered, her chubby face close to Marina’s. “Put your head between your knees. Try to relax. We’ll get some help.”
Marina slumped forward and buried her face in her knees.
Shoving her bifocals up the bridge of her nose, Mary Helen assessed the situation. Anne was busy with Luis, Eileen with Marina. That leaves only you, old girl, she reasoned. “I’ll go inside and see to the progress,” she said. Squaring her shoulders, the old nun breathed deeply and plodded through the front door into the black foyer.
“We’ll be there in a minute,” Eileen called after her.
Turning right, Mary Helen felt along the wall for the light switch, with no success. A light switch, like a policeman, was never around when you needed one. Her eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness.
Slots of moonlight filtered into the foyer and illuminated the curved staircase leading to the second floor. “The moon is a ghostly galleon, tossed upon cloudy seas” came to her crazily, as she edged her way up the marble steps toward the professor’s office. One of the heavy tapestries on the stairwell hung slightly askew, but everything else looked normal. Not even one Carrara bust had moved on its pedestal. Each stared blankly ahead.
Rounding the corner, Mary Helen caught a slight movement in the upper hall. A shadow, maybe. She stopped. Blinked. Peered into the blackness. Nothing. Gripping the bannister, she steadied herself. She could feel her heart pounding. “Anyone there?” Her question reverberated through the empty building. Silence.
“Are you all right?” Sister Eileen’s muffled voice floated in from the front steps.
Mary Helen took a deep breath. “Fine,” she shouted back, hoping she meant it. It’s just the wind, she assured herself, relaxing her grip. “The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees.” Deliberately, she marched up the remaining steps to the second floor.
Across the dark hallway, a beam of light came from room 203. Funny we didn’t notice it from outside, Mary Helen thought, pausing in front of the open door. Cautiously, she peeked in. The outer office was in darkness. A second door, the one to the professor’s inner office, was slightly ajar. She craned her neck. The light was coming from the desk lamp. Like a beacon, it spotlighted the toes of two impeccably polished shoes. Mary Helen’s mouth felt oddly dry and parched, strangling the gasp in her throat. Professor Villanueva lay sprawled beside his desk.
Mary Helen crossed the room and squatted beside his body. Thin streams of blood trickled from his ears, encircling his head with a bright red halo. Avoiding his blank, staring eyes, she grabbed his limp wrist. It was still warm. She felt for his pulse. Nothing. His well-manicured hand fell back. Lifeless. She put her fingers on either side of his long, slender neck, sticky with fresh blood. Still no pulse.
She leaned against the edge of his desk. Don’t fall apart now, old girl. She controlled the sob aching in her throat.
Slowly, she reached for the phone and dialed O. They would need an ambulance—and the police.
What next? Be logical. A priest. He needs a priest. Numbly she dialed St. Ignatius Church.
Sister Mary Helen forced herself to look around the office. Everything was as she remembered it. Nothing moved, nothing different, except for the bronze statue that lay on the floor near the professor’s body. The professor’s body! Kneeling beside the sprawled figure, she reverently intoned the ancient Latin prayer for the dead. De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine. Domine. exaudi vocem meam. The words rang through the empty room.
“Oh, my gosh, is he dead?” Sister Anne whispered. Mary Helen jumped. She had not heard Anne coming. No wonder. Anne was wearing her blasted Paiute moccasins.
“I think so,” Mary Helen answered in a flat tone. Behind her, she heard Anne retch, then bolt from the room.
Mary Helen struggled to her feet, and sank into the professor’s high-backed leather chair. Almost every mystery novel she read mentioned “rubbery” knees. She had wondered how they felt. Now she knew.
White-faced, Sister Anne reappeared in the doorway. “Sorry,” she said. Her large, hazel eyes avoided the floor. The old nun just nodded. In the silence, Mary Helen could hear the younger woman swallow. “What happened?” Anne asked, hardly managing to get her tongue around the words.
“It looks as if that statue may have fallen on him.” Mary Helen pointed to a large, bronze figurine of a medieval nobleman. It lay on the blood-drenched carpet several feet behind the professor’s head.
“Where did it come from?” Anne asked, without looking down.
“Up there. I noticed it the other morning when I was here.” Mary Helen swiveled her chair toward the bookcase. A small space at the end of the third shelf was vacant. “The quake must have knocked it off the shelf.”
“What a freak accident! Nothing else seems disturbed!”
“We’d better not touch anything until the police arrive,” Mary Helen warned her, unnecessarily. They always said that in all the mysteries she’d read.
Anne looked at her. “That’s for murder. This was just an accident. A freak accident.”
The whine of a siren filled the small office. A black-and-white patrol car rolled up in front of the college. Its rotating light threw long shadows in the semidark room. A police radio could be heard in the distance, and two doors slammed shut.
Heavy footsteps clambered up the marble staircase. The outer office lights flipped on. Two of the burliest policemen Mary Helen had ever seen filled the doorway.
“Evening, Sisters.” Both officers removed their hats.
Good Catholic boys, Mary Helen observed, watching Sister Eileen sandwich her way between the men. Sister Eileen was leading a small ascetic-looking Jesuit carrying the holy oils. Somberly, the priest knelt beside the professor’s body and began the sacred words of anointing.
The three nuns sat quietly on a bench in Professor Villanueva’s outer office. “Just in case we have any more questions,” one of the patrolmen had said. Mary Helen could hardly believe that it was only three days ago that she had first set foot in this room.
San Francisco had been hot. It was one of those October days in the city which make the natives sweat, swear, and bless the fog they had cursed the week before. Already the radio predicted another day in the upper eighties.
Trudging up the driveway from the Sisters’ Residence to the main college building, Mary Helen stopped to catch her breath. Sisters’ Residence, indeed! Nothing but academia for “convent,” she thought, staring back at the plain, squat structure. It looked like the college’s poor relation. She didn’t know if she’d ever get used to calling that unpretentious square anything but a convent. As long as she was living on the hill, however, she figured the only decent thing to do was try.
Shielding her eyes against the glaring sun, the old nun admired the imposing building ahead. Its majestic stonework shimmered against the cloudless sky. All its windows, like so many slits in a castle turret, were flung open to catch the morning coolness. Even the gargoyles seemed to be sweating.
It’s going to be a scorcher, she thought, checking her watch. Nine-thirty. Plenty of time. Her appointment with Professor Villanueva wasn’t until nine forty-five.
As she approached the side of the building, voices tore through the quiet. Stopping, she looked up. The sounds were coming from one of the first few tiny windows on the second floor. Although at first she could not make out what was being said, the tone was unmistakable—anger.
“Bastardo!” a furious voice shouted.
Mary Helen hurried around to the front of the building. No matter what the language, there are some words you can always understand.
“Morning, Sister.” A student passed her on the front steps of the main building. Mary Helen hesitated before the ornate double doors. Above them, rococo lanterns framed gold-leaf letters proclaiming: Mount St. Francis College for Women, Founded MCMXXX.
The college! The one place she had been trying to avoid for fifty years, and now—here she was. Before she could reach out to grasp the fluted handle, the heavy door flew open and a tall, curly-haired, apparently angry young man, burst past her. Shirt sleeves rolled to the elbows, stained kitchen apron covering faded jeans, he hardly fit his opulent surroundings.
Adjusting her bifocals, Mary Helen watched him take the front steps two at a time, then disappear around the corner of the building. Whoever he was, he was in a hurry.
The tomblike coolness of the foyer gave her a sudden chill. Dark tapestries covered the walls and stairwells. Pale marble busts of saints and scholars stood on equally pale pedestals. Each stared at her with cold, vacant eyes. Stiffening her back, the old nun let the door swish shut behind her.
Life goes on with or without you, old girl, she reminded herself, so you might as well go with it. Turning right, she started up the curved staircase to the second floor. She half expected to see a knight in full armor clank down the marble steps toward her.
Sister Mary Helen took another quick look at her watch. Right on time. Lightly, she tapped on the wooden door marked 203.
“Come in, it’s open,” a pleasant voice called over the clicking of a typewriter. “Just push.”
As she entered, a well-dressed young woman, her thick, black hair clipped back severely, looked up from the typewriter. Mary Helen was struck by the young woman’s beauty. Not by her features so much, although they were delicate and well-proportioned, as by the eyes. The young woman’s eyes were such a clear, deep blue that they looked almost turquoise against her translucent skin.
Smiling, she rose and extended her right hand. Her hand was large for a woman’s, and her grip was firm. A good sign, Mary Helen noted. “Welcome, Sister,” the young woman said, with the hint of an accent. “You must be Sister Mary Helen.” The old nun nodded.
“I’m Marina, Marina Alves. Professor Villanueva’s secretary. The professor expects you. I’ll buzz him.” With one long, slim finger, the young woman pushed the button of the intercom. “The sister is here,” she announced.
Almost immediately, Professor Phillip Villanueva opened the frosted glass door separating his office from his secretary’s. Mary Helen was shocked at how perfectly he fit the stereotype of the successful college professor. Tall and slender, he came complete, even in all this heat, with a brown tweed jacket, turtleneck pullover, and a sweet-smelling pipe. Yet there was something about the professor’s narrow ...

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