"One of the most cleverly plotted cozy mysteries I've had the pleasure to read."
Reviewed by Paula Myers
Posted November 29, 2010
Mystery Hobbies | Mystery Cozy
Residents of Excelsior, Minnesota, believe Leona Cunningham
to be the town's resident witch, and while most are
tolerant of Leona's Wiccan beliefs, a few are wary or even
outright fearful of her. As co-owner of Barleywine, a local
dining establishment, Leona primarily uses her skills for
brewing beer. Her latest creation, Don Be Afraid of the
Dark Ale is set to debut just in time for the annual Fall
Betsy Devonshire, owner of the local needlework shop Crewel
World, is on the festival planning committee, which is this
year headed by Leona's partner, Billie Leslie. Things are
moving along smoothly at one of their planning meetings
until local resident Ryan McMurphy falls off the wagon. In
a drunken rant he accuses Leona of using her witchy ways to
curse him. When Ryan turns up dead in a locked room with no
obvious cause of death, more than a few townsfolk put Leona
at the top of their suspect list.
Betsy knows her friend is innocent and sets out to prove
it. Unraveling the seemingly unrelated clues is almost as
difficult as learning the latest stitching technique, but
Betsy isn't one to give up on either. When the clues
finally begin to fall into place it will take all of
Betsy's skill to catch a killer.
Monica Ferris' BLACKWORK is a part of the
Needlecraft Mystery series, and one of the most cleverly
plotted cozy mysteries I've had the pleasure to read. Betsy
is an intrepid sleuth, quite likable and supported by an
entertaining and diverse group of townsfolk. Ms. Ferris
carefully leads the reader through a variety of twists and
turns to reach a thoroughly satisfying conclusion. This is
the first in this series I've read; without a doubt it
won't be the last.
The beloved USA Today bestselling Needlework mystery series
It's Halloween-and Betsy Devonshire, owner of the Crewel
World needlework shop and part-time sleuth, is haunted by
In the town of Excelsior, Minnesota, Leona Cunningham, owner
of a popular microbrewery, is a practitioner of Wicca, the
nature-based religion often mistaken for black magic. But
that doesn't bother the thirsty crowds. Then, after one too
many pints, a local blames Leona for the series of
"accidents" that have happened throughout town. When he ends
up dead without a mark on his body, Leona's the main
suspect. But Betsy's on the case, and that spells trouble
for the killer.
The Monday Bunch, six strong today—Emily, Bershada, Jill,
Alice, Phil, and Doris—gathered at Crewel World on Monday
afternoon. They came in shivering, shaking raindrops off
their umbrellas and coats, complaining about the weather.
"You’d think we’d get just one good fall weekend!"
lamented Emily. "Henrietta’s play group has been trying to
have a fall picnic since the beginning of September! Poor
thing, she’s so disappointed!" Since Henrietta was barely
four, it was likely that the disappointment lurked more in
the heart of her mother than in her own.
"It’s the middle of October, so we probably won’t be able
to have it outdoors now," she continued. "Hi, Betsy," she
added as she settled down in her chair.
"I’ve got spiced apple cider heating up in back," said
Betsy. "The coat rack’s back there, too," she added, and
Jill led the way to the tiny back room, where the coffee urn
waited, along with the tea kettle—currently heating apple
cider spiced with cinnamon and cloves—and cups and mugs in
Styrofoam and china.
"Well, Leona did say we were going to have a cold, wet
fall," said Bershada, coming back with a cup of steaming
cider. She said it lightly and without looking at anyone as
she led the way to the big library table in the front area
of the shop. She sat down, lips slightly pursed, still not
looking at anyone, and got out a wooden frame holding a
large rectangular piece of counted cross-stitch. It was a
half-completed alphabet sampler featuring bright-colored
flowers, from amaryllis to zinnia. A retired librarian, she
was doing it as a gift for the Excelsior Public Library.
There was a little pause while Bershada put on the
magnifying glasses that rested near the tip of her small
nose and the others seated themselves around the table and
mulled over whether to take the bait being offered.
Alice, as bold as she was blunt, said, "I do hope we
aren’t going to talk about Leona and her witchcraft." She
was a widow and the oldest member of the group. Well into
her seventies, she was nevertheless a vigorous woman,
big-boned and broad-shouldered, with a deep voice. She sat
down, opened an antique carpet bag, and produced yarn, a
crochet hook, and a half-completed afghan square.
"Why not? Our television weatherman said this past
weekend would be partly cloudy with a slight chance of
rain," said Godwin. "Leona is always better than he is at
predicting the weather." It had, in fact, rained steadily
all weekend. Betsy raised an eyebrow at him. He had been
hoping to hear what the Bunch thought of the Ryan McMurphy
incident, but Betsy didn’t want hurtful gossip aimed at
Leona. He wasn’t sitting at the table himself, but was
standing at a rack of counted cross-stitch patterns with
religious themes, setting in new ones by numbers the shop
Betsy was seated at the big old desk that served as a
checkout counter, carefully punching credit card numbers
into her laptop. The shop’s card reader had unaccountably
died on Friday, and she had instructed her staff to write
down the numbers by hand. A replacement machine wouldn’t
arrive until Wednesday, so now she had the task of sending
the information over the Internet.
She was muttering bad words under her breath because one
number wasn’t being accepted. It had been written down
wrong—and it was a number Betsy had taken down herself.
Already two other credit card holders had gone over their
limit and Visa was not accepting the charges.
Hearkening to the sounds of angst, Jill twisted around in
her chair. "When you get tired of mere words," she said to
Betsy, "you can ask Leona Cunningham for something more
potent, you know."
There were stifled gasps and giggles around the table.
Godwin contributed a patently false gasp and a shake of his
blond head in a denial of his own.
"Oh, posh!" said Jill, turning back and fixing them with
a cool blue stare. "Isn’t that what we’re leading up to
here? Witchcraft as practiced by Leona Cunningham?"
"No, of course not!" said Emily, but her cheeks were
pinking. "None of us believes in that stuff."
"I think some of us do," said Doris in her pleasant sandy
voice. She and her beau, Phil, sat side by side, no longer
pretending in public to barely know one another. They were
each working on a needlepoint Christmas stocking. "It’s been
all over town that Ryan McMurphy taunted Leona—and Billie—in
The Barleywine on Friday, then got hit by a truck three
minutes later. I’d say half the people in town think the two
things are connected."
"No, they think it’s fun to pretend the two are
connected," said Bershada. "Like going to a scary movie:
you’re scared, but not really. Phil, for example, doesn’t
really think Leona Cunningham put a curse on Ryan McMurphy
that came true."
Phil said, "Now, ordinarily I wouldn’t believe such a
thing, especially of such a nice woman as Leona. But Ryan is
such a terrible drunk, and after the way he behaved in The
Barleywine, maybe he’s not wrong to be worried." He wore a
superior sort of smirk as he said this, and Doris nudged him
Emily said, "If Ryan is scared, he’s taking a funny way
to show it. Did you hear he broke through the screen into
Leona’s back porch and trashed it? She had flower pots and
bundles of dried flowers stored back there, and he kicked
and smashed and threw stuff everywhere."
"When did this happen?" asked Betsy, surprised.
Phil looked at Doris. "Saturday night?" She nodded. "Yes,
Saturday night. I’m surprised you didn’t hear about it."
"You sound pretty sure Ryan did this, Emily," noted Jill,
glancing also at Phil. "How do you come to think that?"
Jill used to be a police officer, and she still had that
polite but implacable look a traffic cop can summon at will.
Confronted by her cool stare, Emily confessed, "Well, I’m
just assuming it was Ryan. But really, who else could it be?"
"What do the police think?" asked Phil.
"They’re investigating it as a hate crime," admitted
Jill, who would know, of course. Her husband was Police
Sergeant Lars Larson.
"Poor Leona!" said Emily.
Bershada said, "I wonder if those were not dried flowers,
but dried herbs. Leona has a wonderful herb garden, so this
must be like she lost her whole summer."
Emily said, "I bet she was furious!" Then she looked guilty.
"Now, Emily—" said Betsy in a warning tone.
But Doris said, "I’d be furious if someone got into my
needlework stash and tore things up."
"Yes, but you can’t throw a hex on the person who did
it," said Phil.
"Neither can Leona," said Alice. "Nobody can, there’s no
such thing as hexes." Her late husband had been an extremely
orthodox Lutheran minister.
Betsy stopped entering numbers long enough to say, "I
agree. Plus, I think you’re all in danger of being cruel and
stupid to say such things about Leona, even in fun. She’s a
very nice woman, and most of you know that."
"Of course we don’t really believe in hexes!" said
Godwin. That’s why we’re joking about it."
"I suppose that’s true," said Phil. He took a thoughtful
look at his stocking—a present for Doris. It depicted Mr.
and Mrs. Claus in the front seat of a Stanley Steamer, a
stocking specially designed and painted to his order by
local needlepoint artist Denise Williams. Doris, retired
herself, had a boiler license and they shared a
knowledgeable interest in Lars Larson’s Stanley.
Phil leaned sideways to admire her stocking. It depicted
Santa driving a steam locomotive—Phil was a retired railroad
man. The stocking in her hands was, of course, a present for
They had become accepted as a couple in town, seen
everywhere together, without passing through that
public-kissy-face stage. Perhaps because they were seniors,
it had been an old-fashioned courtship; since they were only
engaged, not married, they even maintained separate
residences. Doris gave a fond glance at the sapphire and
diamond ring on her finger.
Jill said, "Some people believe in curses." She was
nearing the end of stitching a counted cross-stitch pattern,
of a black cat sitting on a jack-o’-lantern while licking
its paw. "That’s why what happened to Leona is being
investigated as a possible hate crime."
Bershada said, "I heard Ryan invoked Adam Wainwright’s
name in The Barleywine when he was raving at Leona about
hexes. And you have to admit that what happened to Adam was
A little silence fell around the table. Adam Wainwright
had been a financial counselor in Hopkins, and Leona had
invested fifty thousand dollars of her husband’s life
insurance with him. A couple years later, needing the money
to set up the microbrewery, she discovered that all but a
few thousand dollars of it had disappeared. Adam told an
investigator that Leona had instructed him to invest in
high-risk stocks and the money was lost when the investments
went sour. Leona denied Adam’s story but the man produced
documents with Leona’s signature on them and so he was never
charged with a crime. Soon after, he was driving his classic
Corvette convertible around Lake Minnetonka when an eagle
flying overhead dropped a huge bass, which landed square on
Adam’s face, causing him to swerve off the road. The car was
totaled, and fish scales got into his eyes and caused an
infection that essentially destroyed his vision. It was a
shocking, weird accident, and some of Leona’s friends felt
it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving person.
"Do you mean to tell me that any of you sitting at this
table thinks Mr. Wainwright’s accident was caused by a curse
put on him by Leona Cunningham?" demanded Alice in an awful
"Ryan believes it," said Godwin. He pushed another
pattern into the row of them on the shelf, and turned to
face them. "And right after Ryan accused her of it, he goes
out and gets his car wrecked. This despite all his amulets."
"What are amulets?" asked Emily.
"Haven’t you seen that collection of his?" Godwin used
his hands to form a softball-size shape in the air. "It’s
got so many good-luck pieces on a big silver ring that if he
ever fell into the lake, it would take him right to the bottom."
"Oh, that Ryan is just silly!" pooh-poohed Emily, her
knitting needles flashing. She was making a sweater for her
toddler son. "She made him mad, telling him to walk home. Of
course he felt he just had to drive his car, and so he
blames her for the wreck."
Bershada laughed, but Jill said, "That sounds just like
excuses I’ve heard from drunks back when I was on patrol.
‘She told me I couldn’t, so I had to prove I could.’ And he
probably doesn’t remember doing the vandalism to Leona’s
back porch. He’s been drunk ever since he got out of jail."
"He knew what he was doing when he dared Leona to put a
hex on him at The Barleywine," said Betsy, remembering.
Godwin said, "Even if he thought his lucky charms
protected him in that accident, it seems stupid of him to
tempt her again by trashing her back porch."
"Of course, his accident had nothing to do with the fact
that he was severely intoxicated that evening," said Alice
"It had everything to do with it," said Jill. "Being
drunk also gave him the nerve to beard the lioness in her
den—stand up to Leona in The Barleywine."
Phil said, "I heard he jangled that keychain right in her
face and dared her to lay a curse on him."
"Did she?" asked Emily. "Lay a curse? You know, did she
say the words that meant she was cursing him?"
"No, of course not," said Jill. "She told him to walk,
not drive, walk home and sleep it off."
"Were you actually there?" asked Doris, hearing a note of
authority in Jill’s voice.
"No," said Jill, "but that’s what’s in the police report.
I also happen to know Ryan blew a two-oh."
"What’s that mean?" asked Emily.
"When they make you blow into a little machine that
measures how drunk you are," said Betsy, "it comes up in
Jill said, "In Minnesota, oh-eight—that is, a
zero-point-zero-eight percent blood alcohol level—is legally
too drunk to drive. Zero point two zero is very drunk."
Betsy said, "He must have had a lot more beer than we
realized. I wonder why Joey Mitchell kept buying it for him."
Bershada asked, "Aren’t those two good friends?"
"They used to be," said Phil. "Then Joey was in a car
accident with Ryan behind the wheel. Joey came away with a
smashed left arm that’ll never be right. He had to quit the
fire department because of that, and I know he was mad at
Ryan for a long time."
"He must have gotten over it, then," said Betsy,
remembering how Joey greeted Ryan warmly and came to sit
with him in The Barleywine booth.
"How’d Ryan get drunk?" asked Bershada. "I heard Leona
and Billie agreed never to sell
him any more beer after that night he got in a fight and
broke their juke box."
"Joey bought it for him. He admitted it."
"What was Ryan doing there in the first place?" asked Emily.
"He’d come to tell the committee about having finished
restoring that antique fire engine for the parade," said Betsy.
"What would one point zero be?" asked Doris, idly curious.
"Dead," Jill said. "I read not long ago of a woman who
was zero point five seven and she is considered a medical
miracle because she came out of her coma and lived."
"Why would anyone drink till they nearly die?" asked Emily.
"Usually on a dare or a bet," said Jill.
"Chug-a-lug, chug-a-lug," chanted Phil, nodding at an old
Betsy frowned at him. Where had she heard that recently?
Not directed at her, but overheard. Probably from someone at
The subject was wandering away from superstitions, so
Godwin said, "Look, a Hamsa Hand." When they all looked
toward him, he held out a counted cross-stitch pattern with
a color photograph of the completed piece on its front. It
looked like an open hand, blue, palm forward, with three
fingers between two thumbs, all pointing down. In the center
of the palm was an eye with a red heart for an iris. Above
the hand was printed a line in some very foreign language.
"Ryan has one of these in pewter," he said; "I’ve seen it
"What does the writing mean?" asked Doris.
Godwin consulted a tag hanging on a string from the
bottom of the canvas. "It’s Hebrew for ‘Let this home be
filled with the blessing of joy and peace.’" He seemed
disappointed that it didn’t say something like, "May this
home be safe from hexes."
Betsy said, "The Hamsa Hand is also found in Arabic
countries. There, it’s the Hand of Fatima."
"Muslims and Jews have the same superstition?" asked
"Actually, the hand is older than either religion. But
sometimes Muslims and Jews will wear the hand as a sign that
they want reconciliation."
"Why is there an eye in the palm?" asked Doris.
"It’s protection against the Evil Eye," said Godwin,
looking again at the tag.
"It looks like an evil eye," noted Alice.
"But it has a heart in the center of it," objected Emily.
"There’s many an evil deed done in the name of love,"
"Do you believe in the Evil Eye, Goddy?" asked Betsy in a
very dry voice.
"No, of course not," said Godwin, making cabalistic
gestures with his free hand and pretending to spit left and
right. Phil and the women at the table laughed, even Alice.
Godwin often made grand, brave statements he would
simultaneously contradict with a gesture. It was part of his
"Are you superstitious, Betsy?" asked Phil in a jocular
"Oh, no more than average," said Betsy, trying for a
distracted voice, picking up the next sales slip. She didn’t
have any amulets on her keychain, but there was a small,
real amber bead sewn into the lining of her swimsuit.
Sailors knew that wearing an amber bead means the wearer
will never die by drowning. In another life, Betsy had been
a Navy WAVE.
Godwin decided to become direct. "Do any of you really
believe Leona Cunningham is a witch?"
"Of course she is!" said Emily, staring at him. "Isn’t
that what we’re talking about? She’s a Wiccan."
"No, I mean, do any of you believe she can cast a spell
"Well . . ." said Phil, scratching the underside of his
jaw with two fingers. "There’s more things under heaven than
most of us realize. We Christians believe in miracles, so
maybe we should believe in the opposite, too . . ." He shrugged.
"Oh, stop it, Phil!" said Alice. "I can’t believe you
think there’s anything in such silly superstitions. To think
that in this day and age anyone would believe a person can
boil up a potion of bats’ wings and tiger talons and harm
another person with it is too ridiculous even to contemplate!"
"Bats’ wings and tiger talons?" echoed Emily. She began
to giggle. "I thought it was eye of newt and toe of frog."
"Well, whatever it is. No mortal human can harm another
with fairy-tale rhymes and a . . . a kind of nasty soup."
Emily’s giggle became a laugh.
Alice continued doggedly, "It’s wicked to spread belief
in such nonsense. I should think responsible people would
speak up against it."
Doris said, "I think that when people are harmed by
curses, it’s because they believe in them. I’ve read that if
a person truly believes in witches and warlocks and such,
and a witch throws a curse on him, he will actually get sick
or even die just from believing in it."
"Do you think Ryan got in that accident last week because
he truly believed Leona put a hex on him?" asked Godwin.
"I agree with Jill—Ryan got into that accident because he
was drunk," said Doris.
"And mad," amended Phil. "Leona told him he should walk
home, so of course he had to show her she wasn’t the boss of
him. Except he didn’t."
"How could he go home?" asked Bershada. "I thought his
wife threw him out."
"I forgot about that, Bershada!" said Emily. "You’re
right, she did. So where was he going? Does he have a place
"He’s living with Shelly," said Betsy. "Apparently her
boyfriend is an old friend of Ryan’s and he talked her into
it. It would have been an easy walk, even in the rain." She
remembered the hypnotic tone of Leona’s voice as she told
him to walk the three blocks to Shelly Donohue’s house.
"I wish Shelly could join the Monday Bunch," said Doris.
"I love it when she’s working in here, and I’ve been
admiring her designs. It would be very interesting to watch
her work out a pattern."
That set off a discussion of favorite designers. Emily
loved Barbara Baatz-Hillman—her pillows ornamented her
daughter Henrietta’s bed. Phil had recently added Stoney
Creek’s patterns, "Railroad Memories," to his stash.
Jill was singing the praises of Jane Greenoff when the
door sounded its two notes and Leona Cunningham came in, her
dark eyes enormous in her white face. She was without a coat
or an umbrella and was streaming wet, a condition she did
not seem to notice.
"Betsy," she said in a trembling voice, "I want to talk
Betsy stood. "Of course." She led Leona into the tiny
room at the very back of the shop.
"Ryan McMurphy has been found dead."
"Oh, my God. What happened?"
"I don’t know. But someone just called me to accuse me of
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