Cover image for The happy birthday murder : [a Christine Bennett mystery]
The happy birthday murder : [a Christine Bennett mystery]
Harris, Lee, 1935-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Fawcett Books, 2002.
Physical Description:
243 pages ; 18 cm
General Note:
Subtitle from cover.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
X Adult Mass Market Paperback Central Closed Stacks
X Adult Mass Market Paperback Mystery/Suspense
X Adult Mass Market Paperback Mystery/Suspense
X Adult Mass Market Paperback Open Shelf

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Suburban sleuth Christine Bennett is moved and intrigued by two poignant mementos treasured by her late Aunt May. The first is a sad little note mourning the death of a young man lost in a Connecticut wood; the other, an obituary honoring a wealthy local manufacturer who committed suicide just after his splendid fiftieth birthday celebration.

Why did her aunt never mention these virtually simultaneous tragedies? Chris's investigative instincts are irresistibly whetted--especially by the bizarre discovery that the victims, though strangers, were found wearing each other's sneakers. And as she slices through the layers of the past, she uncovers the horrible truth that murder was just the icing on the cake. . . .

Author Notes

Lee Harris is the author of the mystery novels featuring ex-nun Christine Bennett. The Happy Birthday Murder is the fourteenth book in the series, and will not be the last, for the author is happiest when writing. Christine Bennett first appeared in The Good Friday Murder , an Edgar Award nominee. In 2001, Lee Harris received the Romantic Times magazine Career Achievement Award for her distinguished contribution to crime writing.

Lee Harris's e-mail address is She also has a Web site which she shares with three other mystery authors. It can be found at



Eddie loves nursery school. The first year he went, he attended on Tuesdays and Thursdays. This year he goes every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning. As it happens, this is very convenient for me, because I have made a great change in my life. From the time I left St. Stephen's Convent, having been released from my vows, and came to live in the house I inherited from Aunt Meg in Oakwood, New York, I had taught a college course in poetry. Sometime last year I decided that both my students and I would benefit if I taught something new. The college was acquiescent and agreed to let me teach a course on American mysteries by female writers. It seemed an appropriate topic, as I have worked to solve several murders over the last few years. The best thing about it was that I spent the summer reading the most wonderful books, telling myself it was work and not fun and never believing it for one second. By the end of August I had a syllabus ready, and I began teaching just after Labor Day. It's a Wednesday morning class and Eddie is in nursery school that day, so the changes in both our schedules have meshed nicely. Nursery school has given Eddie friends who live farther than our neighbors. At the end of September he was invited to a birthday party for a boy who was turning four. We went to a toy store together, perhaps not the best idea I've ever had, and bought his friend something that I'm sure Eddie wanted for himself, so I made a note of it, as his birthday will be coming along later this fall. The party was on a Wednesday afternoon, which was no problem. My class ended before lunch and at four we drove over to Ryan Damon's house, where Ryan's mother was preparing a splendid barbecue that included mothers as well as children. The children donned party hats and blew noisemakers, making all of us over the age of four a little crazy, but they had a great time playing a bunch of games and then eating hot dogs and hamburgers and potato chips while we older folks were presented with steaks. I had a feeling as I was eating this wonderful fare that the present should have gone to Ryan's mother. A large birthday cake, decorated with blue roses and green leaves and lots of butter cream, ended our feast. Every small face was sticky with white stuff and no one wanted to go home. There was something lovely about sitting outside on a lazy autumn evening, breathing in the good fresh air, and knowing it would all end soon, the pleasant weather, the light in the early evening, the leaves still on the trees. Finally, several of us got up and started clearing away the debris and then coaxed our rambunctious youngsters to go home. "I like Ryan," Eddie said as I seat-belted him in the car. "He has a very nice mommy, too," I said, appreciating all her hard work. "I like that cake." "Well, you have a birthday coming up in a couple of months. We can try to get a cake like that for you." "And hot dogs." "But not outside, honey. It'll be too cold by then. We'll do something else. And we'll be sure to invite Ryan." "OK." Jack was home by the time we got there. Jack is one husband it's OK to leave without dinner already prepared, as he is the better cook. Eddie told him about every mouthful he had eaten and all the games the kids had played. When he was thoroughly worn out, he went upstairs for a much-needed bath and bed. Jack had the coffee going when I came downstairs, and we had just settled down to a quiet evening when there was a cry from upstairs. It was the beginning of the worst night of my life. I won't go into details. Suffice it to say that Eddie was sick and the cause was most likely something he had eaten. Since he had never been this sick before, I was frightened. We decided rather quickly to get him to the emergency room, a first for me, and I hope there will never be a second time. We wrapped him up, grabbed a basin, and tore out of the house. As we entered the hospital, Jack carrying our very sick child, I heard the woman behind the admissions counter say, "Here comes another one." Some very capable people immediately took Eddie, who was crying softly, probably because he had lost the energy to do it any louder, to a room where they laid him down and began to work on him. That did provoke some louder cries, but Jack and I had followed closely and we shushed him, holding his hand and talking to him quietly. That I was even able to sound calm and reassuring was something close to a miracle. All I could think of was E. coli and salmonella, two terms that struck absolute terror inside me. Jack started asking questions, as two of us could not stand near enough to comfort Eddie. Eddie was the third child to be brought in and they were anticipating more, considering the number of children at the party. No adults had been stricken, at least not so far. I tossed out that the mothers had eaten steak and the children had been given different fare. "Have a good time at the party, Eddie?" the doctor asked. Eddie stopped crying and blinked. He said a soft, "Yes," and sniffled. "What did you eat?" "A hot dog." "That's all?" "A hamburger." He screeched as a needle pricked him. "You're doing fine," the doctor said. "You're a pretty brave kid, you know that?" Eddie nodded and I smiled. "So that was all you ate? A hot dog and a hamburger? I bet you had some ice cream and cake, too." "Uh-huh." "Anything else?" " 'Tato salad and 'tato chips." "Potato salad. Hey, that sounds good. Wish I'd been at that party." Bet you don't, I said to myself, all the while admiring his skill in moving fast and talking at the same time. "There was coleslaw on the table, too," I said, trying to remember. "I'm very concerned about E. coli." "We don't think it's E. coli," the doctor said. "But whatever it was, it was something the kids ate and not the mothers, so it could be the franks or hamburgers." "Have you talked to the woman who prepared the party?" Jack asked. "Mrs. Damon. Yes. We have someone going over the details with her right now and we're bringing in the Department of Health. We'll get to the bottom of this, but it may not happen tonight." He raised his head and looked at me. "Maybe you'd like to sit down, Mrs. Brooks. You're looking a little worse than your son right now, and I don't want another patient on my hands." I tried for a smile, but he was right. My fear had gotten the better of me, wearing me out. When Jack shoved a chair under my bottom, I sat down gratefully. Three more children were brought in in the next hour, one of them Ryan, the birthday boy. Pat Damon was beside herself. The hamburger meat had been freshly bought that day, also the hot dogs. The birthday cake came from everybody's favorite bakery. The ice cream went from the store freezer to her freezer at home. The salads were from an upscale delicatessen. This could not have happened. She was so apologetic, I finally told her to stop. It wasn't her fault and I felt sure that between the hospital and the Department of Health, the source would be determined. The doctor decided to keep all six children overnight, and I spent the night sitting in Eddie's room, listening to him breathe, watching his face, touching his skin, and trying not to cry. Jack stayed with me most of that time, but during the night he went to the rooms of the other little children and talked to their anxious parents. The consensus was that it had to be the chopped meat or the franks, as those were the two foods none of the mothers tasted. But not all the sick children had eaten the same things. One child had eaten half a hot dog and no hamburger and one had eaten only a hamburger and no hot dog. Every child had had at least some cake, but I had had cake, too, and I was feeling fine, or at least my digestive system was. And not all the children at the party had been afflicted. About two in the morning Jack suggested I lie down on the cot that was there for that purpose, but I refused. I was so filled with terror, so shaken at the fragility of my child and all the others, I could not leave his bedside. At some point I did doze off in the chair, and I was glad, when I awoke, that I had gotten some sleep, as I would be taking Eddie home in the morning and I didn't want to pass out or something stupid like that when I was alone with him. Jack offered to stay home, but I felt he should go to work as usual. The only one of the three of us who got a good night's sleep, as it turned out, was Eddie. I kissed Jack and held him rather dramatically, then let him go. At the hospital, they checked Eddie out, fed him soft food, kept him for a while after that, and then let me take him home. Several other mothers were doing the same, and we exchanged greetings and gossip. No one in the hospital admitted to knowing what had caused the poisoning. I talked to several of the mothers during the day, including Pat Damon, who could not stop apologizing. She had been interviewed by the Department of Health in the morning and she had turned over the receipts for the food she had bought, most of which were still in the bottom of the bags she had taken it home in, ready to be reused or recycled. She had also handed over samples of all the food that was left. Not one mother had gotten sick, and three children, who were also being interviewed, had also not gotten sick. It was quite a mystery. After lunch, I took a greatly needed nap while Eddie did the same. I awoke feeling much more human and was gratified to see that Eddie's color was returning to his cheeks. I decided to keep him home from nursery school the next day so he could continue to recover until Monday, when I hoped he would be well enough to go back. Considering the horror of the previous night, that Thursday was quite calm and restored my confidence. Jack called several times, and when he came home he was carrying a toy for Eddie. I think that did more to make us all feel better than anything else. Excerpted from The Happy Birthday Murder by Lee Harris All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.