Witness in Bishop Hill

Witness in Bishop Hill, St. Martin’s Minotaur, 2002; Worldwide, 2004.
Now available as an ebook.


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The prize here is the gently effective interpretation of the Alzheimer’s scourge.
— Kirkus Reviews, Sept. 15, 2002

It’s been much too long since the last Joan Spencer mystery and Sara Hoskinson Frommer has come up with a winner once again. Joan is a believable amateur sleuth with the ability to think things through while knowing what should be left up to the police. Frommer also gives us a delightful visit to a community grounded in old-world customs. I highly recommend this to all who love a good traditional mystery.
— Lelia Taylor, Creatures ‘n Crooks Bookshoppe www.cncbooks.com

When Joan and new husband Lt. Fred Lundquist travel to Bishop Hill for a belated honeymoon, the only witness to murder in the small Swedish-American community is Fred’s Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother in Witness in Bishop Hill, Sara Hoskinson Frommer’s latest appealing Joan Spencer mystery. Expect plenty of cosy chills as Joan strives to prevent a vicious killer from striking again.
— Publishers Weekly, October 14, 2002

The care and handling of Alzheimer’s victims is neatly enfolded into this tale, which also gently treats Swedish Christmas customs, the tender and fraught relationship between Joan’s college-age son Andrew, his new step-father, and herself, and the long memories of small towns. Frommer is a brisk and clean writer, and she handles the rueful ambivalence of middle age very well indeed.
— GraceAnne A. DeCandido, Booklist, November 1, 2002, p. 447.

The village and its traditions spring to life from Frommer’s crisp prose and her deft interweaving of serious social issues into the crime-solving elevate the book well above the typical cozy.
— (MGP) The Drood Review of Mystery, November/December 2002, p. 12.

Family dynamics and a Midwestern sensibility are the hallmarks of Sara Hoskinson Frommer’s Joan Spencer series. So it’s no surprise that the author delivers an insightful take on Alzheimer’s disease and domestic issues in the well-plotted Witness in Bishop Hill. . . . Frommer keeps the plot on a steady course while realistically depicting the devastation of Alzheimer’s. A heartbreaking recurring situation is that Helga, once a wiz in the kitchen, has forgotten how to cook, yet is always saying she needs to start dinner. Yet never once does Frommer stoop to a maudlin viewpoint in Witness in Bishop Hill. The author keeps her fifth novel briskly moving while capturing then charm of a small town.
— Oline H. Cogdill, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, January 19, 2003.


In the morning, Joan and Fred luxuriated in the knowledge that neither of them had to go to work for two whole weeks. At half past eight, lured by aromas that slipped around the edges of their door, they collected their basket of warm, fresh-baked blueberry muffins and cranberry scones and Swedish rusks from the hall table and carried it up to the second floor to breakfast by the wood stove in the upstairs common room, instead of at the gateleg table in their own spacious room, the Dr. Vannice room. All the guests’ rooms were named for early settlers, their hostess had told them the night before, most of them for doctors, but two for pastors. She had shown them the porches on the back of the hospital, where long-ago patients had sunned themselves and breathed fresh air. Here and there ancient crutches, wheelchairs, and bedpans planted with green vines reminded them that the place really had been a hospital.

It wasn’t as if they were a real honeymoon couple, Joan thought as she climbed the stairs to the common room, not after several months of marriage. But this morning she couldn’t help being glad they had the whole place to themselves, not counting their hosts, of course, who lived on the second floor, across from the common room.

“This place will be full over the weekend,” Fred said. Joan raised her eyebrows, her mouth too full of heavenly light buttered scone to ask why.

“Lucia Nights, remember?”

Hard to believe the quiet village she’d seen last night would be that different in a couple of days, but he ought to know.

Back in their room, the sun was pouring through the white tab curtains, and it was a pleasure to cover the bed with its double wedding ring quilt. She’d have to tell Rebecca that this one had an eight-point star in the middle of each ring. Rebecca would know whether that was unusual.

Eventually they strolled down to Helga and Oscar’s and found Helga teaching Andrew to make Swedish pancakes. Must be one of her good days. Clearly, they weren’t needed.

Joan could feel relief oozing out of Fred. He’d been worrying a lot more about his mother than he’d been letting on, she was sure. But pumping him about it wasn’t likely to help. When he was ready, if he ever was ready, she’d hear about it. She only hoped she’d know how to respond.

He proposed a bike ride.

“Bikes?” Joan said. Could even Fred conjure up bikes in Bishop Hill?

“Mountain bikes–one of the little services the bed and breakfast provides.”

“Why not, then? It’s flat enough around here, and right now the roads are clear of snow.” Joan looked up at the clouds overhead and sniffed the air. It had a familiar dusty smell. More snow coming.

After one circuit of the park they headed south to a museum that displayed oil paintings of the dour Swedes who had founded the place, and of rows of women planting corn and men harvesting it with scythes for the women to tie into bundles, assembly-line fashion.

“It’s almost as if they’d had a photographer on the spot,” Joan said, reading about Olof Krans, the artist who had documented the colony at the time.

Fred nodded. “Only a lot slower.”

“Let’s come back another time. I’d like to get out and just ride while we can.”

And so they rode to Galva, where they stopped to thaw out and eat a leisurely lunch before turning back. A few rolling hills Joan hadn’t noticed from the car proved more of a challenge than she had expected, but she managed. Nothing like southern Indiana hills, of course.

Back in Bishop Hill, Fred said, “Time to check on the folks again,” and Joan agreed, already wondering how stiff she was going to be the next day. Though she walked regularly, her bicycling muscles hadn’t pedaled miles like that for some time. They parked the bikes in the shed behind the old hospital. Setting off down the long block hand in hand, they saw a man running toward them from the other end. He seemed to be yelling something.

Suddenly Joan recognized Andrew. “Something must be wrong at your folks’!” She started running.

Fred passed her in a few strides.

Now she could hear Andrew’s words: “Mom, Fred! Hurry!” She ran harder.

Fred reached him first and grabbed his parka. “What’s wrong?”

Andrew stood panting in his grasp. “It’s Helga. She’s missing.”


“She was gone when Oscar woke up from his nap.”

Fred dropped the parka. “When was that?” His voice was calmer now.

“After lunch, more than an hour ago. I was out poking around some of the little shops. He hadn’t gone to sleep when I left, and when I came back, he was all upset.”

“You sure she didn’t just take a walk?”

“That’s what Oscar thought at first, but when she didn’t come back in a few minutes, we went looking for her. We’ve been looking ever since, but we can’t find her anywhere.”

“Let’s go talk to Dad,” Fred said. When Andrew took off running, he said quietly to Joan, “It’s probably going to be nothing, like the little girl in Oliver. Mom has friends all over Bishop Hill. If she ran into someone while she was out walking and went in for a cup of coffee . . . ” But she could hear the worry behind the words.

Joan put her arm back into his. “Does your dad panic easily?”

“He didn’t used to.” He frowned and walked faster.

Oscar met them at the door. “She’s gone. My Helga’s gone.” He looked exhausted and a little shaky on his feet. Joan hugged him and kept hold of his hand, as much for physical support as for encouragement.

“Let’s sit here on the sofa together, Oscar, while you tell us all about it. And Andrew, could you make us something hot to drink? And bring something sweet to go with it?” He was sure to know his way around the kitchen by now.

“Sure, Mom.” He shed his jacket and disappeared.

Oscar collapsed onto the sofa. His eyes, the blue already cloudy, were moist, but she couldn’t tell whether he’d been weeping or it was only the rheumy discharge of old age.

“All I did was take a nap.” His voice rose.

“Of course you did,” Joan said, and squeezed his hand. “Has she disappeared like this before?”

“Not for so long. Never this long.” So it had happened more than once. Typical of so many Alzheimer’s patients. Even without a diagnosis, she couldn’t help thinking of Helga that way now.

“Where did you find her before?” Fred said. Joan could imagine how much it was costing him not to jump down his father’s throat.

“Someone usually brings her home. She goes off without a coat, and the neighbors see her.”

“Uh-huh.” Joan remembered how Helga had run out to them in a sweater. “Did you look for her coat?”

“It’s not here,” Andrew called from the kitchen.

“Neither are her mittens, hat, and boots,” Oscar said. “I looked.”

“Good. That explains why no one brought her home. And it means she’s not going to freeze.” Not unless she’s fallen out there, anyway. Joan offered Oscar her handkerchief, and he blew his nose loudly.

He pocketed the handkerchief absently. “I never thought of that.”

“Did you ask her friends?” Fred said.

“Not at first.” Andrew carried in a tray with steaming mugs of hot chocolate and a plate of cookies. He set it on the coffee table in front of them. “At first we just looked outdoors.”

“We asked everyone we saw,” Oscar said. He picked up a mug and a handful of cookies.

“Then we went in the shops, and finally we started knocking on doors,” Andrew said. Sitting down, he reached for the cookies.

“Whose doors?”

Oscar rattled off a list of names that meant nothing to Joan, but Fred nodded. Old Bishop Hill people, then.

“But nobody saw her today,” Oscar said. “You didn’t ask anyone you didn’t know?” Joan asked.

Oscar just looked at her.

Fred raised an eyebrow. “You think there’s someone in Bishop Hill he doesn’t know?”

Right. “So where should we look now?”

“Dad should stay home, in case she comes back while we’re out.”

Oscar looked relieved and seemed to sink farther into the sofa. “Don’t worry, son. I’ll be right here.”

“Andrew, we’ll get you a bike, too,” Joan said. “The three of us can ride around the edges of town, in case she took a wrong turn and got lost.” She hoped Fred wouldn’t mind her horning in, but he didn’t seem to.

They deposited their mugs on the table, took turns in the only bathroom the old house possessed, and wrapped up again. Even though the sun had finally come out, the air would be plenty cold. Oscar wasn’t wrong to worry about Helga.

Hurrying back to the bed and breakfast for the bikes, Fred said, “We’ll make one more good pass around town. If we don’t find her this time, we’ll have to call the sheriff for help. He wouldn’t come if you or I had been missing for such a short time, but losing someone like Mom is like losing a child.”

He’s no longer in denial, Joan thought. He knows what’s happening to her.

“How could she get lost in a place this small?” Andrew asked.

Fred just shook his head.

She’s hurt, Joan thought. She has to be. And cold by now. Already feeling the chill, she hugged herself.

They sent Andrew toward the cemetery. “We didn’t see her on the road to Galva,” Fred told him. “But maybe she went to visit some of her old friends in the cemetery. Go east on Main Street and past the church. Then make a big circle. Look in all the little roads. Ask at houses, too. You know where you’ve already asked.”

Andrew nodded and pedaled off.

“Where do you want me to go?” Joan asked.

“Stick with me. We’ll go up past Mom and Dad’s, check out the woods first. She used to like those woods.” He shook his head. “I didn’t believe Carol. Mom seems so normal most of the time.”

“A lot of people do,” Joan said. “And they hide it as long as they can. It’s everybody’s nightmare.”

“But Mom? Wandering around without a coat so the neighbors bring her home?” He shook his head again. “Why didn’t Carol tell me that?”

“Maybe she didn’t know. Would your dad even have mentioned it if she hadn’t been lost?”

“Stubborn old man.”

“He was trying to protect her. People don’t want to lose control–have their children take over.”

He just shook his head.

They parked the bikes outside the Lundquists’ house and crossed the road toward the snowy open field with the wooded ravine behind it. Joan blessed her good boots. She’d need them down in that ravine.

“No one’s gone through the fence recently,” she said. The snow in the field was obviously untouched, its top crystals glistening in the sunlight.

“But look up there!” A few yards ahead, the snow beside the road was churned up.

Joan could see easily where someone had waded from the road to the fence and along the fence line down into the woods.

Fred reached the spot first, but waited for her. “Can’t see any footprints–it’s a mess. And watch yourself. It’s tricky walking in here.”

He was right. Not only the snow, but things hidden under it made the going rough. Following him, Joan struggled forward past the fence and down the steep hill into the ravine. After tripping and picking herself up more than once, she slowed down and managed to keep her footing. Then she heard a faint sound off to the right and forgot all caution.

“Where are you going?” Fred yelled.

Breaking through drifted and crusted snow, with bare branches whipping her face, Joan called back, “She’s hurt. Can’t you hear her?” She stood still. Now the crying was unmistakable.

“Mom!” Fred called. “Mom, is that you?” They listened together. The crying had stopped. He raised his hands to his mouth and shouted. “Mom, it’s Fred!” Now he looked and sounded as worried as Joan was sure he felt.

The crying started up again, louder this time, beyond some thick underbrush.

Joan was almost on top of her before she spotted her, curled up into a ball with her back to them, shivering and sobbing. She had burrowed into a kind of nest in the deep brush. Her brown coat and knitted hat blended with the brown twigs, like a deer hiding in the forest. In fact, looking at the spot she had chosen, Joan was sure that deer had used it first. A deer trail, which Helga’s tracks had joined, led right past it. It would have given her an easier time than plowing through the woods herself.

“Helga!” Joan knelt down and reached out to her. “Oh, Helga! Are you all right?”

“No!” Helga wailed. “Fred’s dead! He killed him! I saw it!” And she wouldn’t budge.

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