Fatal Undertaking by Mark de Castrique

“Fatal Undertaking:  A Buryin’ Barry Mystery” by Mark de Castrique. Sourcebooks 2010.  240 pages.  Accessed via Hoopla online service via Alamance County Public Libraries

Fatal Undertaking by Mark de Castrique

“Burying Barry” Clayton is a small-town funeral director or undertaker in the fictional western North Carolina mountain town of Gainesboro, NC.  He recently returned to his family business after years in law enforcement and works part-time for the local Sheriff’s department.  Halloween is being celebrated with a Haunted House fundraiser and Barry’s family firm has provided a casket as furnishing for the local Jaycee event.  The president of the organization, Carl Atkinson, takes a turn “resurrecting” from the casket to scare visitors as they tour the house. 

Things go drastically wrong at the charity event when Atkinson, the middle-aged son of a prominent family, is found dead of stab wounds in the casket during the event.  Barry Clayton is assigned by the Sheriff to investigate the case and there is some evidence to suggest that Archie Donavon, a brash fellow Jaycee who sells insurance, might have been the intended victim.

The local investigation is hampered by national media coverage because of the macabre circumstances of the death, and Clayton’s ambitious ex-wife Rachel shows up as a TV journalist trying to use their relationship as entrée to the inside track on the investigation in order to advance to a more prominent network.  This causes problems when she offends local sensibilities during her interviews and causes friction with Susan, a local hospital physician, and Clayton’s current love interest.  The murder victim is known locally as a profligate son and un-sympathetic victim and ripples from the investigation threaten to resurrect old grudges and lead to yet another murder.

Clayton is simultaneously trying to pursue murder suspects and to please a grieving local father who has recently lost his son and wants a full military funeral with a “real” trumpet player performing Taps.  Farce ensues when Clayton trips and falls into the open grave after using his trumpet skills from high school band to oblige and ends up crippled during the investigation.

As inquiries proceed, the Sheriff’s Dept is faced with other crime that involves the mysterious theft of locally grown Christmas trees that are being cut and prepped for the upcoming holiday season.  Could a monetary motive tie some of the local crime together?

“Fatal Undertaking” is author De Castrique’s fifth “Barry Clayton” police procedural with “Undertaking” in the title and it proves to be an engaging home-spun puzzle with a distinct holiday flair.  De Castrique, a North Carolina author, writes two mystery series set in western North Carolina, and first introduced humorous Undertaker Barry Clayton in the novel Dangerous Undertaking.    As an investigator, Clayton is reminiscent of Spencer Arrowood, the Appalachian sheriff prominent in Sharyn McCrumb’s “Appalachian Ballard” series of North Carolina mysteries.  Both series are recommended as entertaining light reading for fans of series mysteries who like home-state settings.

Lisa Kobrin is the Reference and Local History Librarian for Alamance County Public Libraries. She can be reached at lkobrin@alamancelibraries.org.