"The Big Steal" by Emyl Jenkins

Feb 8, 2010

Emyl Jenkins of Virginia and North Carolina had achieved, by the 1980's, a national reputation as an expert in antiques. She has been the author of two syndicated antiques columns, "Antique Wise" and "Ask an Appraiser" and is the author of "Emyl Jenkins' Appraisal Book: Identifying, Understanding and Valuing Your Treasures" (1989).

Mystery/detective novels are a wildly popular genre these days, and have been around for quite some time, but different readers enjoy them for different reasons and the form itself has been changing, evolving since its very beginnings. Edgar Allen Poe is traditionally given credit for inventing the form with his "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841) and "The Purloined Letter" (1845). Poe generates a mystery to be solved and a detective to solve it, but little is told about his detective, the brilliant Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin. Poe called his stories tales of ratiocination, and the appeal was to order and logic, to solve the puzzle.

This changed in the twentieth century.

Readers of the hard-boiled detective stories, those by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler for example, enjoyed the tough, lone wolf sleuth and the violence he encounters and engages in as he takes on dangerous mobsters, sinister international villains and other lowlifes.

By the 1920s, especially in England, the reader grew to care about more than solving the mystery itself--who done it?--the butler in the library with a candlestick. In many cases, the mystery took second place to our interest in, for example, Agatha Christie's quirky detective Hercule Poirot, or Christie's Miss Marple in her quiet little village, or, more locally, the two sisters in Anne George's Alabama cozies. These bright, amusing, eccentric sleuths became our warm acquaintances and we just liked reading about them.

Perhaps the next evolutionary stage was the dominance of setting. I read Donna Leon's Commissario Guido Brunetti mysteries because they are set in Venice, Italy, a favorite place. Readers enjoy learning about the Edinburgh of Ian Rankin and the Oxford of Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse, the Botswana of Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency Series and, more recently, the novels of Stieg Larsson, set in Sweden.

Lately, there is yet another wrinkle, another developmental stage: some mysteries now seem to be content- or subject-centered, not hero- or place-centered. Dick Francis' novels may be in this newish category. Readers are perhaps more interested in reading about jockeys, racetracks, horses and stables, I think, than in solving the crime.

Emyl Jenkins of Virginia and North Carolina had achieved, by the 1980's, a national reputation as an expert in antiques. She has been the author of two syndicated antiques columns, "Antique Wise" and "Ask an Appraiser" and is the author of "Emyl Jenkins' Appraisal Book: Identifying, Understanding and Valuing Your Treasures" (1989).

Also, the world of antique treasures has captivated the public imagination through the "Antiques Road Show" on PBS. We all now think we are interested in antiques and know something about them.

I don't know when the idea first occurred to her but in 2006 Jenkins put her expertise to work in fiction and published "Stealing with Style," a mystery novel with Ms. Sterling Glass as heroine/detective. Glass is, of course, an antiques expert.

Ms. Glass lives in Northern Virginia, in fictional Leemont, which she describes as smallish, quiet, tucked away. Sterling was married for 20 years to Hank Glass, of the Virginia First Family Glasses. Now divorced, she has kept the name--it sometimes gives her entr?e--and is an antiques columnist and appraiser and a consultant for banks and insurance companies.

In "Stealing with Style" she is called in by the local bank after Sarah Rose Wilkins dies mysteriously and police find a $75,000 Paul Storr 1807 silver tea urn in her house. Wilkins was not rich. How did it get there? Sterling investigates and the plot leads around Virginia and even to the New York auction houses.

In her new novel, "The Big Steal," Sterling Glass is called to investigate a burglary at Wynderly, now a run-down uninhabited mansion in Virginia, but once the enormous, magnificent home of Hoyt and Mazie Wyndfield. The house is crammed with antiques. There are even secret rooms filled with antiques. In what looks like a break-in, some pieces have been stolen, some others damaged. Some of the missing and broken pieces are valuable, some not. Sterling meets with the eccentric Board of Directors of Wynderly?a local banker, a professor, a socialite?and they are all odd and all seem to have something to hide. The caretaker, Michelle Hendrix, is a suspect, but is a decent sort and Sterling comes to like her.

As she sleuths around in Wynderly, Sterling finds immensely valuable objects no one seems to have known were there at all. She also discovers that many of the pieces are fakes? really good, professionally executed fakes. What were the Wyndfields up to? In her search for documents to help establish provenance, she also finds some old papers and diaries that reveal some fairly surprising practices on the part of the Wyndfields, especially the handsome, charming and incessantly world-travelling Hoyt Wyndfield.

These novels are cozies, with a few chills and thrills but no real violence. One comes to like Sterling. She is, as mentioned, a divorced woman. With few exceptions such as the Nick and Nora Charles mysteries, detectives are almost always single. This gives them the freedom to move about geographically and stay out late at night when they need to, and gives the author the chance to introduce potential romantic involvement. In Jenkins' novels, the reader roots for Sterling as she is courted in a very diffident, low-voltage fashion by Peter Donaldson, an ex-Episcopal priest and widower who now runs a Salvation Army thrift shop where he occasionally finds a treasure in the donated stuff, and in a somewhat more sophisticated and upscale fashion by Matt Yardley, senior executive for the Babson and Michael Insurance Company in New York City. With Matt, there are fancy dinners, but not much intimacy, much to Sterling's dismay.

Of course the books are filled with instructive talk of antiques. In fact, every chapter begins with a query letter to "The Antiques Expert" and the object being asked about appears almost immediately, in that chapter. These are quiet, pleasing novels, charming, and, in their way, very educational.