Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery, thriller
Series: Secret Staircase Mystery #2
Published by Minotaur Books on March 21, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's Website, Publisher's Website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Bookshop.org, Better World Books
Multiple award-winning author Gigi Pandian is one of the best locked room mystery writers working today. Her newest heroine, Tempest Raj, returns in The Raven Thief, where sliding bookcases, trick tables, and hidden reading nooks hide something much more sinister than the Secret Staircase Construction crew ever imagined.
One murder. Four impossibilities. A fake séance hides a very real crime.
Secret Staircase Construction just finished their first project with Tempest Raj officially a part of the team—a classic mystery novel-themed home interior. Their client is now ready to celebrate her new life without her cheating ex-husband, famous mystery author Corbin Colt. First up, a party, and Tempest and Grandpa Ash are invited to the exclusive mock séance to remove any trace of Corbin from the property—for good. It's all lighthearted fun until Corbin's dead body crashes the party.
The only possible suspects are the eight people around the séance table—a circle of clasped hands that wasn't broken. Suspicion quickly falls on Grandpa Ash, the only one with actual blood on him. To prove her beloved grandfather’s innocence, Tempest must figure out what really happened—and how—or Ash will be cooking his delectable Indian and Scottish creations nevermore.
Hidden staircases are far from the only secrets that Tempest Raj has to contend with in this second book in the Secret Staircase Mystery series, after the events of last year’s locked room mystery/thriller romp, Under Lock and Skeleton Key.
In fact, the Raj family seems to be keeping an entire hidden vault chock-full of secrets, each believing they are protecting the others – and Tempest herself is no different. But those secrets – or at least a few of them, very nearly put Tempest’s beloved grandfather Ash into prison.
It all starts innocently enough. Lavinia Kingsley wants to exorcise the demon of her cheating ex-husband from her life in general and from the home they once shared in particular. As the bastard is very much still alive – and still living in town – Lavinia decides on a fake séance to remove his virtual or spiritual presence. A ceremony in which she plans to burn a box of papers he left behind when he moved out – into his new girlfriend’s house.
Even in a real séance, the practitioner does not expect the corpse of the dearly or not-so-dearly departed to manifest in the room. So it’s more than a bit of a surprise – it’s a downright shock – when Corbin Colt’s still warm body drops from the ceiling to the middle of the table.
Tempest’s magician friend Sanjay prepared the room for the fake séance, but that was absolutely not one of the props he planned to include!
But that preparation included all the participants surrendering their cell phones, all of the doors to the room being locked, and all of the lights dimmed to set the ‘right’ atmosphere for the event. When that body drops right in front of him, Ashok’s instincts as a retired doctor are to examine the victim in the hopes that he can save the man.
An instinct that unfortunately covers Ash in the evidence used to indict him for the murder of a man who once filed a restraining order against him for assault.
Leaving Tempest and her friends in the same position they found themselves in Under Lock and Skeleton Key – running an unofficial, unsanctioned and absolutely unprofessional investigation into a murder case involving her family that the police seem to have gotten all wrong. Again.
Escape Rating B-: Like the series opener, The Raven Thief is a cozy mystery thriller that takes the classic locked-room mystery and gives it a whole prop cupboard’s worth of new, inventive and occasionally downright magical twists and turns.
When Corbin Colt’s case turns into a murder investigation, it’s not merely a locked room mystery. There are not just one or two, but four impossibilities built into his killing, from how did his murderer get the body into the ceiling with the séance attendees in the room to how did he get so recently dead when he was seen a half hour away by hundreds of witnesses just a few minutes before his shocking demise?
Watching Tempest figure out just how it was done and whodunnit was a lot of fun, filled with oodles of surprises and misdirections, but it takes a fair amount of book to get there.
What was much less fun, or at least much more disjointed, was following Tempest as the family secrets and curses that have plagued her life twisted her up, sent her on more than one wild goose chase and just generally muddied the waters of both the case in hand AND the overarching story of her family and the tragedies that have followed them around the world.
Tempest’s family have a long and storied history as stage magicians – a history that included Tempest herself until just prior to the events of Under Lock and Skeleton Key. Both her mother and her aunt were murdered due to a secret not yet revealed. A mysterious figure that Tempest has nicknamed ‘Moriarty’ is stalking her, claiming to be protecting her but that is murky at best and the reader, along with Tempest is still very much in the dark about his true purpose.
So there are two stories combined into The Raven Thief, and they don’t manage to jell into one. The case of the dead bastard, while not exactly straightforward, had the potential to be a delightful mystery romp of an arsehole getting his just desserts that gets twisted by human emotions and clever misdirection.
The secrets that the Raj family are keeping from one another keep rising up to bite them in the collective arse – which could make the mystery more fascinating. But so far it feels like trying to solve an equation for too many unknowns and they just muddy the waters – at least for this reader.
I did enjoy the last third of the book, as the case in hand starts drawing towards its conclusion. I love Tempest’s quirky family and their even quirkier business adding whimsy, hidden rooms and secret staircases to houses. I’ve also read and liked a few of the books in the author’s Jaya Jones Treasure Hunt series. Taking all of those things together means that I’ll be picking up the next book in the Secret Staircase Mystery series in the hopes of getting a few more clues to all of those pesky family secrets that keep getting in Tempest’s way.