Cover image for Merchant of Venus
Merchant of Venus
Hart, Ellen.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : St. Martin's Minotaur, 2001.
Physical Description:
389 pages ; 22 cm
Format :


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Following up the Lambda award winner, Hunting the Witch, Jane and Cordelia tackle the long-held secrets of old Hollywood when their friend Octavia is blamed for the disappearance of her rich, 80-year-old fiance.

Author Notes

Mystery author Ellen Hart was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota in August 1949. She received a B. A. in Theology from the Ambassador College in Pasadena, California. She writes the Jane Lawless and the Sophie Greenway series. Five of the Jane Lawless books have won the Lambda Literary Award for Best Lesbian Mystery. She has also won the Minnesota Book Award for Best Crime Fiction twice. She currently lives in Minneapolis with her life partner.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Hart's latest, following her Lambda award^-winning Hunting the Witch (1999), can't seem to make up its mind whether it's a murder mystery or a drama of dysfunctional, alcoholic family relations. Where has the delightfully irrepressible character Cordelia Thorn gone, and who is this weepy imposter taken up with sister fights and father confrontations? Why erase her comic, madcap ways that made her such an appealing sidekick to staid heroine Jane Lawless? There's far too little of Jane and way too much of the Thorns as Jane and Cordelia attend the Christmastime wedding of Cordelia's estranged younger sister, Octavia. She's to marry a much older man, legendary film director Roland Lester, despite her sister's reservations and their alcoholic father's outright contempt. Along with the housekeeper and an odd assortment of guests, they're camped out in Roland's decaying mansion when he's murdered just moments before the vows. Plucky Jane investigates, bravely gimping around on her cane through the snow, an image many of Hart's fans will remember while awaiting the next in this popular detective series. --Whitney Scott

Publisher's Weekly Review

Minneapolis-based restaurateur-sleuth Jane Lawless is out of her element in this so-so mystery, the 10th in the series (after 1999's Hunting the Witch). Jane accompanies her best friend, Cordelia Thorn, to an isolated mansion on the Connecticut coast to attend the hastily arranged marriage of Cordelia's younger sister, Octavia, a Broadway actress, to 83-year-old Roland Lester, a reclusive millionaire movie director. Among the handful of friends and relatives in attendance is documentary filmmaker Ellie Saks, who is at work on a profile of the great director himselfÄone that threatens to reveal Hollywood secrets of yesteryear. When Roland collapses during the ceremony and dies shortly after of poisoning, suspicion falls on a number of the guestsÄnot least Octavia. Jane's sympathetic nature invites the confidences of others, and her understanding of human nature makes her good at putting the pieces of a mystery together. But the book suffers from a lack of a clear narrative focus, and the characters are clich‚dÄnone, except for the flamboyant Cordelia, quite comes alive. Uninterrupted stretches of dialogue and online research substitute for character development and investigation. What sets this book apart is the candor with which key characters deal with homosexuality and face the ugly ways they've behaved under the pressure of McCarthyism and the strict moral codes of the past. (Mar. 5) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Minneapolis restauranteur Jane Lawless (Hunting the Witch), best friend Cordelia, and Cordelia's sister Octavia visit NewYork City, where Octavia intends to marry an 80-year old, extremely rich film director. When they arrive, however, the director is missing, and Octavia becomes suspect number one. Another fascinating case for Lawless. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One It must be a statue of Venus, thought Octavia, parking her Volvo in the circular drive next to the mansion. Easing out of the front seat, she crossed the matted, dying grass to a crumbling stone fountain, one obviously no longer in use. In the growing twilight, she gazed up at the bronze sculpture, noticing that the face and body were heartbreakingly beautiful. Venus, the goddess of love, the symbol of physical perfection. Venus had also become the symbol of a man who'd made a name for himself by examining--some said exploiting--the subjects of love and beauty in his films. What Hitchcock had been to suspense and Frank Capra to the more innocent American values, Roland Lester had been to romance. His films were world famous, even though he himself, now in his eighty-third year, had become a recluse.     Weeds surrounded the base of the once magnificent fountain, climbing the carved stone until the tops lay flattened and decomposing in the filthy water. As Octavia took it all in--the wild, untended grounds, the woods in the distance, the tall grass leading down to Long Island Sound, the huge Tudor manor--she knew this might be her first and last visit to the famous Innishannon. She also couldn't help but feel that something was terribly wrong.     Decay, the kind that came not just from the passage of time but from neglect, was everywhere apparent on the multiacre estate. The house, once considered one of America's great Eastern castles, looked forlorn and deserted. Octavia wasn't sure what she'd expected, but this wasn't it. Why would a man reputedly worth millions allow his grounds and his home to descend into such a state of disrepair? It made no sense.     As the sun inched deeper behind the once grand manor house, a chill wind off the sound blew dry leaves across the cracked and pitted drive. So bleak was the scene that had her curiosity not been shamelessly piqued, she would have returned to her car that moment and driven back to New York. But she couldn't, not until she learned why she'd been summoned.     The invitation had been precise. Cocktails at six. Dinner at seven. Formal attire. She assumed that at least a few others had been invited, but since there wasn't another car in sight, it seemed that she was the only guest. A postscript had been added by Roland Lester himself. Written in a hand that appeared shaky with age, it had said, "If you love old movies as much as you've said you do in all your interviews, I have something to discuss that may very well change your life. Don't fail me, Ms. Thorn. I shall count the days until we meet." The note was signed, simply, "R."     The whole thing had a vaguely scripted feel to it--heavy on the melodrama. She'd almost expected to see Klieg lights set up on the front lawn waiting to light her arrival. Just the eyes, of course. Shadow and light, the physical as well as spiritual duality from which the old black-and-white movies had been created. Directors always told her she had amazingly expressive eyes. She was born too late for Klieg lights, but hey, she still appreciated a good lighting designer.     As Octavia walked up the broad sweep of steps to the arched front door, the air of desolation grew even more powerful. The mansion's peaks and gables stood high above her, erect and forbidding. The coldness of the crumbling stucco and wood exterior made her feel as if she were about to enter a ruin, not a living person's home.     Since there was no doorbell, Octavia assumed she was to use one of the two brass door knockers. One was cast in the shape of the Greek mask of Comedy, the other of Tragedy. Perhaps Roland Lester was giving his guests a choice. Deciding not to tempt fate, she selected the Comedy mask, but as she tried to pull it away from its hinge, she found that it was stuck fast, rendering it useless. Not a good omen.     Pounding on the door with her fist, Octavia waited. She adjusted the neckline of her evening gown, then checked her watch. When nobody answered, she swallowed back her superstitious nature and used the mask of Tragedy to announce her arrival. Moments later, the door swung back and a woman stood before her. Her short, dumpling shape and pleasant smile put some of Octavia's more overt fears to rest.     Octavia handed her the invitation.     After studying it silently for a few moments, the woman said, "Come in, please," taking Octavia's wrap and draping it over her arm. "I'm Hilda Gettle, Mr. Lester's house manager."     "Nice to meet you."     "Did you have trouble finding us?"     "No, the map Mr. Lester sent was more than adequate."     The front foyer was large and dark, paneled in oak and filled with antiques. Through a wide corridor that ran beside the stairs, she could see all the way to the back of the house, where a series of multipaned windows looked out on a veranda, one that faced the sound. To her immediate right was the dining room. To her left, another long corridor led off toward the west side of the house. The interior, while still breathtaking, was every bit as dank and dilapidated as the exterior. The Oriental carpets and heavy drapes appeared frayed and smelled faintly of mildew. The furniture--circa 1920's--looked faded and undoubtedly full of the dust of decades. If only someone would throw open the windows and let in some fresh air, but then, that would break the spell. Innishannon was seductive in its disintegration. Like her older sister, Cordelia, Octavia had been born with acute intuitive abilities. This was a house of darkness and secrets, nothing she wanted any part of. For a brief instant she wondered if she shouldn't just offer an excuse, say she wasn't feeling well, and leave. But before she could formulate the right malady, she felt the elderly woman's eyes on her.     "Is something wrong, Ms. Thorn?"     "No, I ... ah--" She gave a weak smile.     "Please. If you'd follow me?"     Like Jane Eyre, caught between fright and fascination, she couldn't leave until she'd met the lord of the manor. As they left the front door and proceeded down the west hall, Octavia became aware of the smell of wood smoke. The scent seemed to center her and calm her down. So did the walls filled with framed photos of famous actors and actresses. Get a grip, she told herself. Coming here tonight couldn't put her in any personal danger. It was simply one of life's little adventures. Sometimes she mistook her rather fertile imagination for intuition. Just because the estate was old and falling apart didn't mean there was anything truly amiss. She'd come here at the request of one of the most beloved film directors in Hollywood history. What could be more delicious?     While Octavia had made a big splash on the legitimate stage, she'd never been able to break into movies. Oh, she'd done a couple of minor films, but nothing anybody would remember. She admitted to a certain hope that tonight's meeting would change all that. At thirty-four, her luck had better change soon or Hollywood's brass ring--and the money and fame it represented--would pass her by forever.     When they reached the living room, Hilda nodded politely and then left. Octavia found herself alone. Since her host hadn't appeared yet, she decided to use the time to survey her surroundings. The room itself could easily have swallowed all of her apartment in Manhattan, and then some. Heavy oak beams crisscrossed the ceiling, while the tall windows were draped in velvet gloom. Clusters of tapestry chairs and couches were spread throughout. The room was spacious, even inviting in its own austere way, and yet it had a certain worn and empty air about it.     She prowled around for a few minutes, touching things, looking at the pictures, brushing a finger along the fringe on a lamp, but never ventured far from the fireplace. For some reason, she felt the need to be close to its warmth and comfort. This close to the ocean, the evening had turned chilly. As she stood staring at the burning logs, she suddenly felt something touch the back of her dress. When she turned around, she found a bundle of white fur sniffing her shoes.     "And who are you?" she asked, crouching down to let the little bichon examine her hand.     "Busby, you idiot. Come here!" shouted an annoyed voice. The dog's owner appeared a few seconds later. It was a woman again, this one a good deal younger than the house manager. She appeared to be in her late twenties, with short tufts of green and magenta hair sticking out from under a baseball cap, a tattoo of a chain around her neck, and four nose rings. The long, gauzy dress seemed to be a trifle 1960's but then Octavia figured the woman liked to wear period clothes.     She stopped dead when she saw she wasn't alone. "Who the hell are you?" she asked, clapping for the dog to come to her.     Busby turned and jumped into her arms.     The woman stared at Octavia with such naked curiosity, she wasn't sure what to say. "I, ah ... I'm here at the request of Roland Lester." She knew she sounded way too formal, but the damn house was making her feel like she'd entered a time warp.     The woman stroked the dog's fur, digesting the information. "What's your name?"     "Octavia Thorn."     "You an actress?"     She nodded.     "You look like one."     "Thanks. I think."     "Where's Uncle Roland?"     "Roland Lester is your uncle?"     "Well, great-uncle, but I'm not big on detail."     "I don't know where he is," said Octavia, rising from her crouching position. "I just got here."     "You staying for dinner?"     "That was the plan."     She continued to stare. "Are you a friend?"     "No, we've never met."     "Then how come you're here?"     Octavia wanted to say that it was none of her business, but held her tongue. The woman hadn't even introduced herself and here she was administering the third degree. She wasn't big on detail or manners. "It's ... a private matter."     "Really. Private."     "And you are?"     "Oh, sorry. I'm Gracie." She held out her hand and shook Octavia's with gusto.     "Do you live here?"     "Yup. Upstairs. The entire third floor is mine."     Octavia had a few of her own questions. "How long has your great-uncle owned Innishannon?"     "Let me think." She scratched her head through her cap. "He bought it in 'fifty-seven, but didn't move in until years later. I guess he wanted a house where he could get away from his work in Hollywood, but since he was such a workaholic, he asked my gramps and his family--Gramps is his brother--if they'd move in and caretake it. Since Gramps was Rolo's personal assistant, he did what he was told. Gramps thought for sure he'd want to renovate the place, but Rolo insisted it remain just the way it was. I call it the Museum. It's gone downhill in the past few years, but I think the shabbiness is kind of funky." She smiled amiably.     "Is your grandfather still alive?"     "Sure. He has rooms upstairs on the second floor. Gram died about twelve years ago. He spends a lot of his time in New Jersey with our family, but he's still the great man's right arm, I guess you could say."     "I assume your uncle entertains quite a bit."     "Not really. Not since Peg died. Except for a few close friends, of course. Old cronies from his movie days. You're the first stranger we've seen around here in ages."     "Who's Peg?"     "His daughter. She died, must be a good seven years ago now. It was real sudden. Rolo went into a complete funk. Wouldn't eat. Couldn't sleep. That's when I arrived. I was finishing my graduate degree at Yale. I had an apartment in New Haven, but I came back here most weekends. Eventually, I just stayed. And then, when I graduated, I moved in. Gramps thought my presence might help."     "And did it?"     She shrugged. "Grief takes time. Believe it or not, I've grown kind of fond of the old guy. I'm sorry I'm going to miss dinner, but I've got a date with some friends in town."     "In New York?"     "St. Albans. It's not far." She kept her eyes fixed on Octavia, which only served to heighten Octavia's sense that she was some sort of rare fungus everyone wanted to get a good look at before Hilda Gettle rushed back in with the disinfectant.     "Well, I guess I better hit the bricks. Enjoy your dinner, Ms. Thorn. Hope I see you again sometime." She backed out of the room with her dog in her arms and disappeared around the corner.     Once Octavia heard a door close deep in the belly of the house, she returned her attention to the fireplace. She hoped Lester would show up soon to put her out of her misery. At this point, the fist of tension inside her stomach had grown so large, dinner seemed out of the question. She needed to find out why she was here. It was probably just a pipe dream, but Octavia harbored a secret hope that the elderly director had some project he was working on--some new movie--and he wanted to cast her in the leading role. Even the remote possibility sent shivers up her spine.     As she moved to a window seat under one of the tall windows, deciding whether sitting down on the upholstered cushion would do any permanent damage to her designer gown, she noticed a thin stream of smoke rising from a wingback chair on the other end of the room. Since the chair was facing away from her, it never occurred to her that someone might be sitting in it.     Before she could think what to say, an elderly man with snow-white hair and a thin mustache stood up and turned around. He was wearing a tuxedo with a red cummerbund. Octavia's startled look must have caused him a moment of amusement because he smiled. Lifting the cigarette he was holding to his lips, he said, "Welcome to Innishannon, Ms. Thorn. I'm Roland Lester."     What struck her first was his elegance. The way he stood reminded her of a character in a Noel Coward play. He wasn't as tall as she'd expected, but his presence was still commanding. "I ... didn't know you were here. Do you always eavesdrop on your guests?"     "My apologies if I've upset you. I was just curious to see which of my family and staff would want to get a firsthand look at the reigning queen of Broadway."     Now he was flattering her. Embarrassing though it was to admit, she'd always been a sucker for flattery, even the most obvious kind.     "As my grandniece said, we rarely have guests anymore, certainly not someone with your ... qualities."     "My qualities?" Had she really fluttered her lashes just then? God, the play had switched to Tennessee Williams. A Southern accent would come next.     "Please don't take this the wrong way, Ms. Thorn, but I've been watching you and your career for several years. I have a chauffeur drive me into New York several times a month so that I can catch a play. Off Broadway, on--it doesn't matter. I watch and I learn. You may think I'm just an old man, someone who's lost his creative edge and his lust for life, but you'd be wrong. I still know a thoroughbred when I see one. The sad truth is, I've felt for years that there are no real Hollywood actors and actresses around anymore--nothing like the icons of the thirties and forties. And then ... well, you went and proved me wrong." Again, he smiled. "You've got star quality, Octavia. The kind that can take even an old man's breath away." He moved slowly toward her. "You have the fire of a Bette Davis, the beauty of a Joan Fontaine, and the intelligence of a Kate Hepburn. And, my dear, you have natural timing, the kind it takes to become a great comic actress. Your range continually astounds me."     She wasn't sure what to say. "Did you say ... Joan Fontaine?"     "You could be her daughter." He moved even closer, this time taking one of her hands in his.     Only now did she notice the two hearing aids, and the filigree of wrinkles that covered his face. But the eyes--they were so clear ... so mesmerizing.     "Very simply, Octavia, even though you've made very few movies and your talent has never been fully recognized, you're the direct descendent of that enchanted Hollywood legacy I've dedicated my life to keeping alive." He held her hand to his lips. With a sudden and amused lift of his head, he added. "And since you're the heir apparent, you might as well have the rest as well."     "The rest of what?" she asked, almost in a trance.     Leading her over to a couch, he said, "That's what I've called you here to talk about."     They sat down in front of the fire.     "Let me start by giving you something." He removed a small box from his pocket.     My God, thought Octavia. This was getting more bizarre by the moment.     "I want you to have this."     "What is it?"     "Open it and see." He waited, his amused smile turning expectant, even eager.     Inside she found a key attached to a chain. The key itself wasn't decorative in any way, but it was old--a skeleton key. The chain, one meant to hang around the neck, looked like it was made of gold. "I'm confused," she said, cupping the key in her hand. "What's it for?"     "That has to remain a secret-for now. But if you agree to my terms, Octavia, I promise, you'll have the wealth and power you deserve. With that key, you can write your own ticket. Be whatever you want."     Were these the ravings of a man who'd gone over the edge? If he had so much money, why did his home look like it was ready for the wrecking ball? Something didn't smell right. "What terms?"     Before answering, he got up and walked over to a table filled with liquor bottles, glasses, and a container of ice. "First I need your promise that you'll stay with me here for a few months."     "Stay? For months? " She was stunned.     "I know your most recent play closed last night. Your time is your own, at least for a while. Would staying here with me be so bad?"     "But ... why would I do that? I don't even know you. Besides, I have a life in New York. A career. Friends."     He poured them each a brandy. Returning to the couch, he handed her a glass, then raised his in salute. "Forgive an old man for taking his time, but if you'll be patient with me, Octavia, all will be made clear." Sitting down next to her, he crossed his legs, stared into the fire and said, "I want to tell you a story."