‘The Body in the Birches’: sophisticated comfort food

birchesBook by book for more than 20 years, Katherine Hall Page has earned a place among the best American mystery writers.

The fact that Page has done this within the confines of a single series about an amateur sleuth is quite remarkable. Series burn-out is quite obvious in the work of some of the more celebrated contemporary mystery writers —who clearly lost interest in their characters and their readers a long time ago — but Page’s Faith Fairchild mysteries are one of the great continuing pleasures of the genre.

It is wonderful to know that each year will bring us a new book and that we won’t be disappointed.

The author has seemingly confined herself by focusing on one family and their friends — and only a few settings — but within those parameters she has created a world that keeps evolving. Page also finds ways to comment on our always changing contemporary society without ever being heavy-handed about it.

William Morrow published the 22nd Faith Fairchild book last week — “The Body in the Birches” — and once again Page has delivered an engrossing, finely crafted story about the intrusion of violence in the lives of good people.

Faith is a sophisticated New Yorker who has found happiness in the Massachusetts hamlet of Aleford from both her family life — she and her minister husband have two children — and the continuation of Faith’s successful Manhattan catering business in a new locale.

One of the ways that Page has kept the series fresh is by setting some of the stories at the Maine resort — Sanpere Island — where the Fairchilds spend summers. Faith fell in love with the place thanks to her Aleford birches1neighbor and friend, Pix Miller, and the social dynamics of the island have sparked several “Body” books (in one novel, Pix was given an adventure of her own while Faith remained off-island).

“The Body in the Birches” is set in Maine as the Fourth of July approaches. The Fairchild house is undergoing an expansion, so the Fairchilds are staying with Pix’s mother. The mystery is centered in a nearby compound that has been the gathering spot for a wealthy family for several generations. After the death of the matriarch/owner, the relatives gather to see who will inherit the place.

Page gives us an insider’s view of the family turbulence — which, of course, leads to murder — with Faith being drawn into the situation in a completely realistic manner. Faith is also dealing with the knowledge that her teenage son Ben’s first real job — at a Sanpere hotel — means her role as mother is changing faster than she would like. Daughter Amy is still only 12, but Faith feels the speeding up of time.

In the space of less than 240 pages, Page juggles a very well-constructed mystery with smart and sensitive family drama that never gets in the way of the suspense — indeed, because the writer makes us care about the characters and Sanpere, we take the intrusion of violence personally.

The author always makes sure that her novels work as stand-alone experiences, but I don’t know why any new readers would deny themselves the pleasure of going back and savoring the earlier installments in this masterful series.