Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Liz Talbot #4
Published by Henery Press on November 3rd 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's Website, Publisher's Website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository
The Charleston streets are dressed for the holidays in sophisticated Southern style: topiaries adorned with red ribbons, garland entwined with white lights, and poinsettias potted in gold planters. The high class bordello in a stately historic home is certainly no exception. When Private Investigator Liz Talbot’s dear friend Olivia swears she saw a dead body in the parlor of this bordello, one Olivia accidentally co-owns, Liz promptly comes to her aid.
With her wedding back home on Stella Maris less than a week away, Liz must juggle one elderly madam, two ex and future in-laws, three ghosts in the bordello, four giddy bridesmaids, five lovely courtesans, six suspicious patrons…and a partridge in a pear tree as she tries to keep her bridesmaid out of jail and live to walk down the aisle.
I didn’t realize I was working on a theme when I started Lowcountry Bordello. Both the heroine of this book, and yesterday’s Between a Rock and a Hard Place, are brides who are heading to the altar sometime well after their 20s, and both women are planning their weddings while in the middle of solving murders.
I think that Pru Parke and Liz Talbot would probably get along like a house on fire.
But today is Liz’ day, at least for the book review. In the book, it almost isn’t Liz’ day to get married.
The Liz Talbot series (Lowcountry Boil, Lowcountry Bombshell, Lowcountry Boneyard) centers around the island of Stella Maris, just off the South Carolina coast near Charleston. Stella Maris has managed to remain a small and cozy town, in spite of its marvelous location and its proximity to bustling Charleston. Liz Talbot, and her entire family going back generations, are partially responsible for Stella Maris still being beautiful and livable. The other force that is responsible for keeping Stella Maris Stella Maris is currently named Colleen.
Colleen was Liz’ best friend when they were kids. But Colleen committed suicide when she was 17, and her ghost is the genius loci of Stella Maris. In other words, Colleen is the protective spirit of Stella Maris. (One is forced to wonder who has occupied the office before, and how they got there. A minor digression.)
So we have a mostly cozy mystery series with one slightly paranormal element. Liz sees Colleen, and Colleen occasionally helps Liz. And often still infuriates her. Because Liz’ presence on Stella Maris is deemed necessary by whatever powers that be, as long as Liz remains a Stella Maris resident and a member of the Stella Maris town council, she is Colleen’s liaison. And while Colleen is not supposed to directly help her friend, keeping Liz alive is important enough that the rules occasionally get bent.
Mostly in the manner of cryptic advice and instructions. Colleen can’t manifest and impact the world directly. At least not yet.
Liz’ matron of honor calls in the middle of the night that she’s found a dead body at her great aunt’s house in Charleston. By the time Liz takes the ferry, the body has been whisked away, as if by magic. No body, no evidence that there even was a body. Just Olivia, overdramatic as usual, insisting that she saw her husband dead on the floor of her great aunt’s house. Olivia’s husband Robert is home with the kids, wondering if all of his wife’s late night meandering is indicative of an affair.
And this is where things get interesting, as well as convoluted in the way that Liz business typically, and often dangerously as well as hilariously, does. Olivia’s great aunt is running a very high class whorehouse. A whorehouse in which Olivia “accidentally” became part owner upon the recent death of her other great aunt.
This story gets better. Or worse depending on who you are in it. Olivia is being blackmailed about owning the whorehouse. Not by just anyone, but by her own cousin, who is the handyman at said whorehouse, and mightily resents that Olivia has inherited the place instead of him.
But since Olivia’s husband is not dead, what happened to the body she saw? Or did Olivia imagine it? (Olivia is so much of a drama queen that it is entirely believable that she DID imagine it.) And then the body of a local politician turns up in the middle of a park, and suddenly Liz has a case to solve, less than a week before her wedding.
After all, it would ruin the ceremony if the police came to arrest her maid of honor before they get to the “I do’s”. Or even after.
In order to figure out who killed the politician, Liz has to find out what the man was doing at the whorehouse. And that’s where things get interesting. The solution hinges on discovering exactly who are the rich and powerful men who sponsor young women through college by setting them up in an expensive house with a big allowance as their “nieces”. There are a lot of dirty secrets involved (as well as one fascinating clean but kinky secret). And the men keeping those secrets have a lot to lose if they are exposed.
But which of them has enough on the line to kill for?
Escape Rating A-: Lowcountry Bordello, and the entire Liz Talbot series, always edge toward going over the top without actually getting there. Alternatively, the way that Liz’ life and family are portrayed is so much fun that the going over the top is part of the charm.
The stories are all told from Liz’ first person point of view. So we only see what she sees and know what she knows. So when the craziness is revealed to her, it is also revealed to us.
However, that first person point of view is sometimes especially poignant, particularly when it comes to Liz’ interactions with Colleen. Liz still misses her friend terribly, so when Colleen appears in the middle of the bridal party, dressed as one of the bridesmaids, as she absolutely would have been had she lived, it brings a tear to Liz’ eyes (and to the reader’s).
Part of what makes this series so much fun is Liz’ crazy family and equally crazy friends. But her friendships don’t just exist so that the author has a crazy person, in this case Olivia, to work with. Olivia and Liz are friends for excellent reasons that go back to the childhood they shared on Stella Maris. So much of what makes this series work, and makes the characters work together, are the relationships they built when they were kids.
The set up for this story is particularly hilarious. How does one come to accidentally own a whorehouse? Or even half a whorehouse? (It’s not often I get to use the word “whorehouse” in a review, I’m having a little too much fun with it.)
And yet, once Olivia’s place in this mess is established, it is so easy to see how things got out of hand. Her great aunts needed a way to keep their century-plus family home in the ritzy historical section of Charleston. Old houses need a lot of expensive upkeep. The old ladies started out taking in boarders, as one does. But then some of their kindly neighbors convinced them or colluded with them that it would be much more profitable for the old ladies if their boarding house was very exclusive and sponsored by gentlemen in need of a place for their “young nieces” to live while the girls attended college. Everyone benefits. Until they don’t.
That’s where Liz steps in. Once the secret starts unraveling, everyone near the unravel is in danger, especially the girls. Only Liz, with a little help from Colleen and the resident ghosts of the house, can get everyone to safety before it’s too late. But once Liz starts protecting the girls, the killer starts chasing after her.
While it would have been a damper for her maid of honor to be handcuffed, it would be a absolute showstopper if the bride were in a bodybag.