Character-Driven Mystery in “Dead Letters from Paradise”

Ann McMan’s Dead Letters from Paradise follows Esther Jane “EJ” Cloud, a mild-mannered postal inspector in the Winston-Salem, North Carolina-based Dead Letter Office. She resides in the city’s historic Old Salem settlement, where she grew up, and has insulated herself against the outside world. The story is set in 1960, and the civil rights movement is gaining steam. A diverse cast of characters assists EJ in solving two mysteries. The first is the title case, in which several letters postmarked from Paradise, Virginia with no return address are mailed to a fictional person. The second is EJ’s self-discovery: as she pursues the postal culprit, she sees herself in a new light and must decide how to handle this new information.

The story begins when the manager of the garden where she volunteers gives her a stack of letters, each bearing a “heady scent of bergamot, jasmine and vanilla.” Unlike other investigations, introverted EJ is forced out of her comfort zone: she travels by train for the first time in her life, interviews multiple witnesses — all strangers — and bounces ideas off the new friends she makes.

One of the most spectacular aspects of this novel is its varied cast of characters, particularly because they are more colorful than the protagonist. EJ is a gentle, introverted loner, whose life is a balance between her work, her love of gardening, and the occasional pulp novel. Each person she encounters along her journey reveals undiscovered qualities about EJ to herself. The most notable players include:

Harrie (short for Harriet), the bold, precocious, and occasional eyepatch-wearing ten-year-old girl who unknowingly and unapologetically up-ends EJ’s world;

Fay Marian and her tenant, Inez, who co-opt EJ’s gardening abilities and gradually reveal their relationship as being much deeper than landlord-renter — a forbidden romance that intrigues EJ;

Lottie, EJ’s partner in the DLO, a Black woman who recounts her trials due to the separation of the races, and whose son actively participates in civil disobedience events;

and Harrie’s aunt, Rochelle, an unashamed beauty stylist who believes in living life to its fullest, enjoying the company of men driving and her yellow convertible T-Bird.

None of this is to say that EJ is as invisible as she believes herself to be — she is the star of the show and is forced to confront the challenges that the other characters lay at her feet. She alone must decide to push the boundaries she now realizes exist and have kept her from becoming fulfilled in life.

McMan’s style is reminiscent of Earl Stanley Gardner’s writing: sparingly descriptive, liberal with dialogue, and sprinkled with dry humor. The author even gives a nod to Gardner, as early in the story, EJ is reading a Perry Mason mystery. In one scene, EJ enlists young Harrie, a newcomer to Old Salem, in a project to clean up a neighbor’s weed and junk-infested yard:

“Would you like to help me pull weeds?” I was eager to change the subject. “I can show you how.”

“Sure.” Harrie dropped to her knees beside me. “I didn’t know these plants was weeds. Our yard in Reidsville looked just like this. Only we didn’t have as many car parts yet.”

“Yet?” I asked.

“We only lived there a year,” Harrie explained.

Another note on McMan’s style: for a novel told in first person, she does not subject the audience to long soliloquies or streams of consciousness. The reader is inside EJ’s head just long enough to access her inner thoughts.

An enjoyable feature of this novel is the attention to historical details from this period: television programs, food products, and brand names help ground the story in the 1960s. The civil rights movement features prominently and includes a scene where EJ and Harrie witness a sit-in demonstration. The reader is also exposed to other areas where segregation impacted Black people’s lives: Lottie’s husband drives for Safe Bus, “which served the colored neighborhoods in and around Winston-Salem where city buses and trolleys didn’t run.” We’re also reminded of the fact that hospitals and even ambulance services were segregated. These images shatter EJ’s idea of the “picture-perfect, snow globe world” that she had cocooned herself within.

Overall, the dialogue and humor keep the story moving at a brisk pace, and the historical details make the narrative even more believable. The mystery of the dead letters provides an interesting scaffold for EJ’s road to transformation. If she never received those letters, her eyes would have been forever closed to the true picture of herself and the world around her.

Dead Letters from Paradise
by Ann McMan
Bywater Books
Published June 28, 2022