The Victim Who Wasn’t – Ruth MacKenzie
Updated: Jul 24, 2022
For someone we find dead on page 1 of Where You Will Die*, Ruth MacKenzie plays a big part throughout the rest of the book.
Here's how the story starts:
The spirit of Ruth MacKenzie was visible everywhere in her shop except her body.
Any other Thursday morning for forty years found Ruth at her desk on the mezzanine level above the display floor of Ruth’s Reveries, the largest and best stocked antique store in the tiny foothill town of Eden Ridge. On this bright morning in late May, she was not at her desk. Instead she lay sprawled beside it, legs and arms frozen at grotesque angles, forming the signature pose of a violent death.
The main character of the book - the kilt-wearing, self-proclaimed minister Alan Wright - finds his friend in that condition a few pages later, sending him on the journey that ends when he uncovers her killer and the circumstances that led to her death. What bothers Alan is the question of why. It becomes impossible for him to stop searching for the answer, despite threats of violence, ridicule, and the possibility of jail for interfering with police business. Why would anyone kill Ruth, one of the best-loved citizens of Eden Ridge?
While Alan and Ruth's friends - the five senior women known as The Little Red Hens - search for the truth behind the gruesome murder, Ruth herself provides plenty of clues to the reader, in flashbacks and in how people talk of her. To call Ruth the victim of a murder would be accurate. But to label her with the identity of "victim" would do her disservice. No one who knew her would describe her as such. In fact, quite the opposite.
Edward Sinclair, publisher of the Eden Ridge Gazette, knew Ruth well. He tells Alan Wright:
" I can tell you for a fact that you don’t live as long as Ruth, be as successful as Ruth, be as stubborn and outspoken as Ruth, and not make some enemies along the way.”
Stubborn and outspoken? Ruth? Tiny, four-foot-eleven, ninety-six-pound, bird-boned Ruth? Yes. In the second chapter, a flashback to the night before her death, she tells Alan she wants to give him a "rare and valuable" gift that she originally willed to her daughter, Anna. Alan knows that mother and daughter have been estranged, so he tries to convince his friend to avoid further strife. But little bird-boned Ruth tells him:
“No!” Ruth stood, anger coloring her cheeks. “She’ll get everything when I’m gone. I have the right to give you this!”
Alan stood. “Ruth. Please.”
“I mean it! You are the only person on God’s green earth who will appreciate it, value it. And it’s mine to give, so that’s final!”
Ruth's strength ("willfulness" some might call it) is well known to friends and family. Jewel Sinclair, Managing Editor of the Eden Ridge Gazette, joins in Alan's quest and gets an earful from one of Ruth's oldest friends, Maryellen Woodcox. Two men have aroused suspicion: Adrian Sterne, the pastor of Ruth's church, and Aristotle Rosi, a professor of anthropology at the nearby college. Both men coveted the rare antique Ruth wanted to give Alan, and Rosi thought he could bully her for it. but Maryellen says:
"I remember when Ruth ... got Sterne and Rosi involved. He acted like he was in charge, ordering Ruth and the pastor around. They fought like cats.”
“Really?” Jewel said. “What did Ruth do about it?”
“She told both of them to get lost. Sterne wasn’t the problem, as I remember. But the professor turned into a bastard when things didn’t go his way."
As the story progresses, Alan learns time and again how strong Ruth was in spirit. Bits and pieces keep coming to him, tiny scraps of information that build a portrait of Ruth, so that by the middle of the book Alan begins to understand the why, if not the how or who, of his friend's murder.
Driving back to Eden Ridge after interviewing Rosi, he and Jewel stop at Vista Point, a scenic turnout overlooking the canyon that forms the west limit of the town. Standing on the edge as the sunset deepens, their conversation helps Alan to fit some of the puzzle pieces together:
Jewel said, “A lot of people were judging Ruth. Anna and Cesar, Rosi, even Williams, with that crap about her being senile.” The dimming fire on the horizon fanned into flames in her eyes.
“She had something they wanted,” Alan said, “and she didn’t give it to them.”
“The (gift)?” (Spoiler camouflage)
Alan turned back to watch the final flickers of sunset, saying, “The (gift) is part of it. But what she never gave was her obedience. She wouldn’t knuckle under.”
Now Jewel watched Alan’s profile, nearly lost in the gathering dusk. “You think that’s why she was killed?”
“That’s what got her killed, but there’s something else.”
Alan skipped a beat, wondering if he should put into words what he felt but could not explain, then said, “She wasn’t the real target.”
“No? Who was?”
Now full dark, a final breeze reached them, cold and insistent.
“I’m not sure. It’s getting late. Let’s head back to town.”
A subplot of the book reveals more of Ruth's grit. She and her only child, Anna, have been at odds for many years. The sudden death of husband
and father, Colin Angus MacKenzie, when Anna was a teenager, scarred her deeply, especially because Ruth didn't pick up the slack. The retired Sergeant Major of the Royal Highlanders Regiment - popularly known as The Black Watch* - had been the doting father to Anna her entire life. When he was gone, Anna felt abandoned not only by him but by her mother. Now, ten years into a marriage that has kept her far from home, her mother's death brings Anna face-to-face with her feelings.
In one passage, Anna remembers how her mother fought for her independence when her father wanted to keep her safe under his wing:
“Ach. Yer a stubborn woman, Ruth MacKenzie.” Her father slapped the leather back of his Chesterfield and pointed across the room at his wife. “The girl’s too young ta be cycling around this town all alone late at night. D’ye no see that?”
“The girl,” said Ruth from behind her chair, arms crossed and eyes afire, “is fourteen years old, and she’s sitting right there.” Ruth pointed to Anna on the couch between them. “Don’t talk like she’s not in the room, Colin Angus.”
Anna hid her smile. Her parents rarely argued. When they did and her mother called her father by his first and middle names, the outcome was certain.
“Aye, fourteen. We canna let her ride around any hour. Fer God’s sake woman, she’ll—”
“She’ll be fine. She’s ridden her bike much farther than the hospital. When she was eleven, she rode all the way up to the high school for summer singing lessons, remember?”
“But in broad daylight. This’ll be late and—”
“It’s high summer. It doesn’t get dark until after eight. She’ll be home by then, and it’s only three days a week.”
His anger deflating, he took on a pleading tone. “But I said I’d drive her there an’ back.”
“Angus, listen to me. She wants to volunteer at the hospital, and I want to encourage that. She wants to do it on her own. She’s growing up. She wants to be independent, and I want to encourage that, too. If we do everything for her, what will she do when we’re gone?”
Yes, Anna whispered to herself, her open eyes lighting on a small, white cloud passing, unhurried, across the bright spring sky. What will I do when you’re gone?
Ruth MacKenzie was the victim of a murder. But a victim? No. In the course of a long life, for better or worse, she would never "knuckle under."
* My debut novel, Where You Will Die - will be published this September.
* How did Ruth, a young Georgetown undergraduate, meet and marry a piper in the Black Watch Regiment? I'll be sending an email only to subscribers, telling the backstory of their fateful meeting on "The last happy day" of the Kennedy administration. Please subscribe to get it.
I'll be posting more about Ruth, Alan, The Little Red Hens, Eden Ridge and other previews and backstory, in the coming weeks. My launch date to publish the book is coming up fast - and I'll be sending out sneak peeks of the cover and other details to subscribers. If you'd like to get those sneak peeks early and invitations to pre-sales and exclusive offers come publication day, please visit my site to learn more about the book and sign up to get email notices.