The Museum of Mexican Arts in Santa Barbara has the usual problems—chronic budget deficits and wealthy patrons who like to meddle. When Isabel Cunningham, descendant of one of the oldest Spanish land-grant families, donates a garish Tree of Life, the museum's greedy director accepts at once. Frank De Palma knows how to curry favor and raise funds, but in matters of taste, Elena Oliverez recognizes his limitations. The young curator despises the huge ceramic object and considers it an eyesore, while Frank views it as the key to future donations from a very rich patron. In addition, Frank's pompous, vain manner is as offensive as his lack of respect for good art.
On the eve of the opening of the museum's new quarters, Frank is found crushed beneath the monstrosity he acquired. Elena Oliverez is every one's suspect. The continual feuding between Elena and her boss was public knowledge, and everyone had heard her threats when Frank forced the unpopular tree into the museum's permanent collection.
Despite Frank's murder, the museum's opening proceeds as scheduled. Later, when Elena is made acting director, she's even more a key suspect. So the art historian turns sleuth, poking through Frank's files and puzzling over a long string of clues. All too soon she's convinced that the murderer is close by... and ready to strike again Now Elena's problem is to convince a skeptical police department that her deductions are valid.
Lt. Kirk disregards key clues: several suspects have a history of suffering at Frank De Palma's hands and may have scores to settle; a museum employee has been taking a number of mysterious trips of late. The Tree of Death is rich in Southern California lore and features an inside look at what happens behind the scenes in the world of fine arts. It also introduces us to a clever young Mexican-American heroine, whose lively curiosity and love for Spanish art and history make for a memorable amateur sleuth.