In this chilling tale of the terrible power of the ties that both bind us and blind us, Gail Bowen has given us her best novel yet. Brimming with the author's characteristic empathy for the troubled, The Glass Coffin explores the depth of tragedy that a camera's neutral eye can capture - and cause.
Canada's favourite sleuth, Joanne Kilbourn, is dismayed to learn who it is that her best friend, Jill Osiowy, is about to marry. Evan MacLeish may be a celebrated documentary filmmaker, but he's a cold fish who not only has already lost two wives to suicide, but has exploited their lives - and deaths - by making acclaimed films about them. Not even Jill appears to be particularly fond of him, and Jo is appalled to learn that her friend is marrying Evan primarily to become stepmother to his teenaged daughter, Bryn. Even Bryn hates her father for having filmed her all of her short life. It's obvious to Joanne that this is stony ground on which to found a marriage. What is not obvious is that it is about to get bloodsoaked.
Intelligent, sympathetic, and harder-edged than earlier novels in the Joanne Kilbourn series, The Glass Coffin is the work of a writer at the top of her form.
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McClelland & Stewart
July 12, 2011
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Excerpt from The Glass Coffin by Gail Bowen
If ever in her short life Linn Brokenshire had prayed for a good death, God hadn't been listening. When she leapt from the top floor of Hart House on a bright October afternoon, bystanders said that midway into her plunge she seemed to change her mind, screaming the word "No" as she plummeted through the gold autumn air. No one who witnessed Linn's fall would ever forget the anguish of that single word; nor would they forget how, hands clutching her worn copy of the New Testament, body trim in college-girl tartan, Linn had smashed into the pavement below. At her funeral, a lifelong friend eulogized her as a girl whose mind had broken when she couldn't reconcile what university taught her with what she had learned in Sunday school. The eulogist was a simple man whose eyes welled when he said that Linn was the gentlest, most considerate girl he had ever known and that if she had ever imagined her death would hurt so many people it would have killed her.
Seven years later, Annie Lowell met death in a manner that also seemed unnaturally cruel. Her life had been an act of defiance, a middle finger raised at the black spikes and slow waves that characterized the brainwave pattern she shared with Dostoevsky, Van Gogh, Napoleon, and millions of other epileptics. Wild at the post- production party of a film that later proved to be her breakthrough as an actor, she had pocketed the keys of a fellow guest, slipped down to the parking garage, and driven his Porsche at a speed the police clocked at 200 clicks before she ploughed into an oncoming semi and was decapitated. Free at last of the endless procession of doctors who had peered over her electroencephalograms and grimly pronounced her fate.
Linked by the tragedy of dying young, Linn and Annie shared another bond. Both had been married to the same man, a filmmaker named Evan MacLeish. When the first two Mrs. MacLeishes had departed this world at an age well short of their Biblical allotment of three score and ten, Evan hadn't wasted any time shaking a fist at the heavens; instead, he had kept his video camera rolling. The artist as alchemist, he had transferred his video to film and in so doing transformed the tragedy of his double loss into the gold of careerbuilding movies.
As I flicked off the vcr in my family room that chilly December morning, I had to admit the movies were brilliant. My admiration for the work did not extend to its maker. In my opinion, Evan MacLeish was a scumbag who, in violating the trust of two women who had loved him, had established himself as the lousiest choice for a life partner since Bluebeard.
But my friend Jill Osiowy hadn't asked my opinion. In thirty- six hours, barring cosmic catastrophe, she would become the third Mrs. Evan MacLeish. I am by nature an optimistic woman, but I wasn't counting on a shower of meteorites.
When it came to men, there had never been any happilyever- afters for Jill. She was a terrific woman: loyal, generous, honest, and, like Winnie the Pooh, unobtrusively at your side when you needed her. She was also a consummate professional who for twenty- five years had succeeded in the airkissing, daggers- drawn, axe- grinding, ego- driven world of network television without sacrificing either her sense of humour or her integrity. Simply put, she was amazing, but her built- in radar for bullshit flamed out as soon as a man came into her life. The best of Jill's men were stud- muffins, big, tall pieces of man-candy whose Speedos were better filled than their noggins; the worst were drinkers, slackers, stoners, gamblers, liars, and, during one of the darkest periods of both our lives, a sociopath who abused her trust and her body. When she analyzed her history of romantic disasters, Jill had 20:20 vision. She had, she would sigh, been dumber than dirt. Those of us who cared for her sipped deeply from whatever we were sipping and remained silent. There was no point in arguing with the truth. Now Jill was in love again, and this time she was apparently convinced that the object of her affection was not just Mr. Right Now but Mr. Right.
To be fair, the rest of the world would have seen Evan MacLeish as the answer to a maiden's prayer. His documentaries drove critics to cringe- making clich�s like "darkly nuanced" and "soul- shatteringly intimate." Serious film fans deconstructed his oeuvre in earnest Internet chat rooms. Most importantly, he was on the A-list of every agency that cut the cheques that make movie production possible. No doubt about it, Evan's future was, in the words of the hit song, so bright, you had to wear shades, yet when Jill had called from Toronto, where she'd been working as an independent producer, to announce her surprise engagement, she had been oddly reticent about the man she was going to marry. As she discussed her plans for a wedding in Regina with all her friends around her, she had fizzed with enthusiasm about Evan's seventeen- year- old daughter, Bryn, but when I'd pressed her for details about Bryn's father, she'd stonewalled, finally e- mailing me an interview with Evan MacLeish that had appeared in the New York Times. The writer, himself a young filmmaker, had clearly been awe - struck in the presence of the great man. The toughest of his questions were soft lobs, and Evan hit them out of the ballpark. As he discussed an upcoming retrospective of his work, Evan was thoughtful and articulate. He was also, if the tiny photo on my computer screen was to be believed, as craggily handsome as the hero of a Harlequin romance. Looking at him, I could almost understand how Jill had convinced herself that she had caught the brass ring; what I couldn't understand was how she could have missed the smear of blood on her shining prize.
The Times article had been hagiography, but the subtext of the dead wives alarmed me enough to phone Jill back and ask if Evan's track record didn't raise any red flags for her. She'd dodged the question. "Just be happy for me," she said. "Then give me a break," I said. "Fill me in on the man who's going to be guiding your hand as you slice into the wedding cake."
"If you want to know about Evan, look at his movies," she said.
I'd come up empty at our local video stores, but I found a distributor on the Internet who promised to rush order the two films I was keen to see: Leap of Faith, Evan's documentary about the life and death of his first wife, and Black Spikes and Slow Waves, Annie Lowell's story. The distributor's definition of "rush order" apparently gave him a lot of wiggle room. The videos hadn't arrived until the day before Jill's wedding, but despite the fact that I had beds to make and bathrooms to clean, I'd hunkered down to watch.
It had been a mistake. There was no disputing the value of the movies as art. Evan MacLeish had been a graduate student when he made Leap of Faith, and it was clear from the grainy images and jerky transitions between scenes that the movie had been shot on the fly and on the cheap. That said, it was a coolly professional piece of work without a single extraneous frame or moment of self- indulgence. Evan's portrait of a woman whose mind had shattered when it collided with rationalist teachings inimical to her faith was the work of a mature artist who set his sights on a target and hit it.
But the very assurance of the film raised an unsettling question about Evan's relationship with his subject. In theory, his was the camera's eye, unblinking, dispassionate, yet Linn continually addressed the man behind the camera, pleading with him, arguing with him, begging him to see her truth. In the scene before her suicide, she stared directly into the camera's lens and sang the children's hymn, "Jesus Bids Us Shine," which ends with the image of a personal saviour who wants nothing more than to look down from heaven and see his followers shine "you in your small corner, and I in mine." Eyes red from weeping, Linn begged her young husband for something to replace the Jesus who had been ripped from her heart. Evan didn't even offer her a tissue. To my mind, that suggested a detachment bordering on the monstrous.
Evan MacLeish's film about the life and death of his second wife was the work of a man at the top of his game. He had learned many lessons in the decade between Leap of Faith and Black Spikes and Slow Waves, but apparently he hadn't mastered compassion. Annie Lowell was an actor by profession and she clearly knew her way around a camera, but Evan's betrayal of her was as complete as his betrayal of her sweet- faced predecessor. As I watched his meticulous recording of Annie's attempt to embrace all of life pleasures before the screen faded to black, I wondered how the filmmaker could have subsumed the husband so completely. Annie was clearly a woman bent on self- destruction. Why hadn't the man who loved her stopped her?
I had tried all day to banish the images of Evan MacLeish's wives by busying myself with the Mrs. Dalloway rounds of a woman planning a party, but the agony of these two very different women had burned itself into me. As I stood by the front door waiting to meet Jill and the man whose camera had captured those images, I had moved beyond concern to dread.
It was the night before the winter solstice. When I had offered to hold the rehearsal dinner at our house, my eighteen- year- old son, Angus, who was habitually short of cash but long on inspiration, put himself in charge of producing a seriously great event. It had taken him many hours at the computer to ferret out traditions that weren't flaky, but as I watched him sprint down the walk in his cut- offs and Mr. Bill sweatshirt, igniting the pine tar and paraffin torches that he had wrapped and hand- dipped, I knew that at least one of his decisions was a knockout. Within seconds, a dozen flames licked hungrily at the thin winter air and the scents of smouldering pine tar and peat smoke drifted towards us.
My eight- year- old daughter leaned over the porch rail to watch the flames. "Angus says people used to build bonfires and light torches on the longest night of the year, so the spirits of the dead would stay away and the sun would remember to come back, but Mr. Kaufman says the dead don't have spirits and the sun just appears to come back because the earth starts to tilt the right way."
"What do you think?" I asked.
Taylor traced a pattern with her toe in the skiff of snow on our front porch. "I kind of like Angus's story better," she said.
"So do I," I said. "But, of course, I still believe in gnomes and pixies."
Taylor grinned. "Is that why you stayed in the garage with Angus when he was making his torches?"
I drew her close. "Nope," I said. "I just wanted to make sure there was someone there to drag him out if that tar and paraffin he was heating exploded."
"I heard that!" Angus twirled his torch triumphantly in the air. "As you can see, I'm still here. You worry too much, Mum."
"Just about the people I love."
"And that includes Jill," Angus said. He peered down the street. "Hey, there are two taxis headed our way. This party is finally ready to rock and roll."
"Not without me, it isn't." Taylor jumped off the porch and ran down the walk. I followed her.
As the first cab pulled up, Angus gave me a searching look. "You could try smiling," he said. "You're so weird about this wedding. Is there something the matter with this Evan guy?"
"I hope not."
"Give him a chance. That's what you always tell us."
"Okay," I said. "I'll keep an open mind." But the power of positive thinking was no match for the lingering intensity of the images captured by Evan MacLeish. Clearly, he was one hell of a filmmaker. As the second taxi slowed in front of my house, I knew in my bones that neither science nor dancing flames would keep the spirits of Linn Brokenshire and Annie Lowell from the party celebrating the marriage of one of my oldest friends to the man who had once been their husband.
As Evan MacLeish eased out of the taxi, I felt my nerves twang. There was no denying the fact that he was a stunningly attractive man, but he had the kind of physical presence that intimidates. He was tall, well over six feet, with a body so powerful that the exquisite tailoring of his handsome winter coat couldn't disguise it. He bent to help Jill out of the car, then stepped towards me. His mane of greying hair curled onto his collar, a Samson image of potency, and his features were strong: heavy eyebrows, a large nose, full almost feminine lips, a cleft in his chin. For a beat, he looked around, taking in the scene, then his gaze settled on me. He had a sentry's eyes, icy and observant. "The matron of honour," he said, and he opened his arms to me.
My response was atavistic and unforgivable. I froze, drawing my arms against my sides like a child steeling herself against the embrace of a loathsome relative. It was a gesture of stunning rudeness; one of those jaw- dropping episodes that offers no possibility of a graceful recovery. Evan raised an eyebrow. "Fearful of the villain's clutches?" he said.
I was fumbling for an answer when Jill joined us. Tall and lithe, Jill was born to wear clothes well. She was not a classical beauty. Her hazel eyes were a touch too close together, and her smile was endearingly crooked, but that night, in her full- length hooded cloak, she had the timeless elegance of the heroine in a medieval romance.
Her face glowing with cold and excitement, she threw her arms around me. "Jo, it is so good to see you. And look at those torches! Absolutely spectacular!"
"You're looking pretty spectacular yourself," I said shakily. "That cloak didn't come from Value Village."
"My soul is still Value Village, but this is a gift from my mother- in- law- to- be. She wore it to her wedding."
"A woman who appreciates you," I said. "I can hardly wait to meet her."
"Maybe some day," Jill averted her eyes.
"She's not coming?"
"She doesn't travel," Jill said.
"Not even for her son's wedding?"
"Caroline MacLeish is a complicated woman," Jill said. "But let's not talk about her now. I just want to enjoy being here in Regina with you and your family. I know you must be swamped this close to Christmas."
"That's why I stepped in," Angus said airily. "So Mum could just do all that cooking and stuff she likes to do at Christmas."
Jill rested a hand on each of his shoulders and gave him an assessing look. "You know when you were a kid, you were a wild man, but you're improving with age."
"How about me?" Taylor said.
"Still a question mark," Jill said with mock gravity, "but definitely showing promise. Now, let me introduce you to my prize." Jill brushed past her husband- to- be and held out her hand to the girl still waiting inside the taxi. "This is Bryn MacLeish," she said.
I was watching my son's face as Bryn got out of the car, and I knew that while the calendar might say we were on the cusp of winter, Angus had just been struck by the summer lightning of love at first sight. At seventeen, Bryn made the cut when it came to the criteria for junior goddess: shoulderlength raven hair, centre- parted, pale translucent skin, huge watchful eyes, wide generous mouth. She was wearing a vintage A- line coat, claret with a black Persian lamb collar - demure, yet sexy, the kind of outfit Audrey Hepburn might have worn in Roman Holiday.
Jill touched my arm. "Wasn't she worth waiting for?"
I was surprised at the tenderness in her voice. "Discovering the joys of motherhood?" I asked.
Evan MacLeish answered for her. "As if she'd invented it," he said. "But to get the child, Jill must take the father." His tone was matter of fact, that of a man stating a simple equation.
The three other members of the wedding party had sent off their cab and trailed over to the sidewalk, waiting to be introduced. Jill was oblivious. Her eyes hadn't left Bryn's face. "She's worth it," she said. "In twenty- four hours, I'll have a daughter."
Jill's intensity about Bryn unnerved me, and I tried to lighten the moment. "Without stretch marks, labour pains, or jeopardizing your status as a size six," I said.
For a split second, the mask of the radiant bride slipped. "Nothing good is free, Jo. You know that." Jill gave me a thin smile, straightened her shoulders, and turned to the other members of her wedding party. "Time to get festive," she said. "Everybody has to meet everybody else, and given what's ahead, we could all use a drink."
Angus, who had never made a halfway commitment to anything in his life, had transformed our house into an oasis of New Age serenity: yellow and white candles dispelled darkness and promised new beginnings; pine and cedar boughs filled the air with the sharp green scent of renewal; crystal bowls glittered with chips of quartz for courage and chunks of rich blue sodalite for old knowledge. Taylor, a skilled artist and a romantic, had made place cards in which exotic birds carried laurel wedding crowns in their beaks. My contribution to the bliss had been Bill Evans's Moonbeams, my personal conduit to transcendence. As far as I could tell, we had made all the right choices, but five minutes into the party I didn't need Angus's Enlightened Web sites to tell me the energy in the room was spirit- suckingly negative.
Our party was small, just six people besides my family. There had been a mix- up about luggage at the airport, and Felix Schiff, Jill's business partner, had stayed behind to clear up the tangle. As I was hanging up coats and ushering people into the living room, Jill introduced me to Evan's sister, Claudia; his second wife's twin sister, Tracy Lowell; and the best man, Gabe Leventhal. One way or another, they shared a lot of history, and if the emotional undercurrents that eddied around us were any indication, there was nothing in that history to inspire a Hallmark card.
Most of the tension in the room sprang from Tracy Lowell. My throat had tightened when I saw her in the light of the front hall. Her resemblance to her twin was uncanny: the same dark bangs, artfully fringed over the high forehead; the same spiky- lashed round eyes and spoiled cherub's mouth. There was, however, a significant difference. In Black Spikes and Slow Waves, Annie Lowell was luminous with the glow of youth; time had drained the lustre from her sister's face. Both women were as frenetically fragile as hummingbirds, but unlike her twin, Tracy had lived to reap what she had sown.
With her sequinned white shirt, Manolo Blahnik strappy sandals, fluttering hands, and hard- edged trilling laugh, she had the mark of a woman who would become dangerous with drink. I was relieved when she rejected liquor in favour of good old Colombian coffee. But as she knocked back cup after cup, I began to wish she'd switch to Jack Daniel's. Halfway through the cocktail hour, Tracy had enough caffeine in her to jump- start a Buick.
Taylor was wired too, but her adrenaline rush came from the purest of sources. She was wearing a swooshy dress; she was going to be up long after bedtime; and the next day she was going to get her hair styled by a real hairdresser and be the flower girl in a wedding. She had also discovered that passing around the canap�s gave her an excuse to get upclose- and- personal with everyone else at the party. She'd already swung by to report that Jill and Claudia were on the back deck smoking cigarettes; that Mr. MacLeish and Mr. Leventhal were arguing; that when Mr. Leventhal talked, he sounded like Columbo on A&E; that Bryn was super- shy; and that Angus was acting like a total dweeb trying to make her like him. By the time my daughter swept through with the smoked trout rolls, she had stumbled upon some really big news. "You know what?" she stage- whispered. "That lady with the sparkly top is on tv. She's the Broken Wand Fairy on 'Magictown.'"