Petal’s Mettle

A Salem-set murder mystery casts a bewitching spell.


The Fifth Petal by Brunonia Barry

Published by Crown, 448 pages, $27

The past trickles down through the centuries in Salem. In this novel, that extends to the unsolved murders of three young women in 1989. Dubbed “Goddesses” by the locals, each was the descendant of a hanged Salem witch, and the town warily explored their sexual antics and their mysterious deaths. Then, 25 years after that triple homicide, another suspicious Halloween death brings Callie, the daughter of one Goddess, back to town.

Salem resident Barry, whose series began with The Lace Reader, combines timeless mysticism with modern-day police work and the primly privileged lives of the socially prominent on the North Shore. At the center of the action is the unbalanced Rose, Callie’s foster aunt and a suspect in the murders. Once a respected scholar of Salem history, she’s had one foot in mental illness ever since that night, claiming a banshee killed the women.

Rose is also a seer who raves about the power and spirit of trees, and Barry takes us through the dreams and visions of both Rose and Callie, who fittingly appropriates the music of the spheres as a music therapist. Along with police chief John Rafferty, she seeks to exonerate Rose and find the real killer. But family feuds involving money and power play an equally ominous role. Callie connects romantically with the son of one of those families, and the mystical plot takes a turn into inheritance-related mayhem, suggesting that witchcraft takes many forms, not all supernatural.

From Page 321: Her frozen body floated on top of the snow, her arms spread out like angel’s wings. She captured motion, as if she were a statue carved at the very moment she moved between the realms. She was beautiful in a way she had seldom been in life: her clear blue eyes looking forward, lips turned up in a smile, and cheeks painted the palest pink. Her long white hair, once so wild, now framed her head like a halo.

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