Review: The Socialite’s Guide to Murder by S.K. Golden + Giveaway

Review: The Socialite’s Guide to Murder by S.K. Golden + GiveawayThe Socialite's Guide to Murder by S.K. Golden
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebbok, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, historical mystery, mystery
Series: Pinnacle Hotel Mystery #1
Pages: 320
Published by Crooked Lane Books on October 11, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

The hotel was her refuge, but scandal is afoot—and a killer stalks the halls in this charming series debut perfect for fans of Rhys Bowen and Ashley Weaver.
It’s 1958 and Evelyn Elizabeth Grace Murphy has not left the Pinnacle Hotel in fourteen months. She suffers from agoraphobia, and what’s more, it’s her father’s hotel, and everything she needs is there. Evelyn’s always been good at finding things, she discovered her mother dead in a Manhattan alleyway fifteen years earlier. Now she’s finding trouble inside her sanctuary. At a party for artist Billie Bell, his newest work is stolen, and Evelyn’s fake boyfriend (and real best friend), movie star Henry Fox, is accused of the theft. But just as Evelyn sets out to prove Henry’s innocence, she finds Billie Bell dead.
The murder weapon links the crime to the hotel’s chief of security. But why would he use a knife with his initials on the handle? With her beloved home in disarray, Evelyn joins up with hotel employee (and her secret crush) Mac Cooper to get to the bottom of the case.
As Mac picks locks and Evelyn snoops around the hotel, they discover the walls around them contain more secrets than they previously knew. Now, Evelyn must force herself to leave the hotel to follow the clues—but when she and Mac set off to chase a lead, their car crashes and they barely escape with their lives. Someone snipped Evelyn’s brake lines, and now the stakes have become dangerously high.
Evelyn’s knack for sleuthing—and her playful imagination—are always hard at work, and she throws an elaborate party at the hotel where every guest is a suspect. But will the killer emerge from the glamorous lineup? If not, Evelyn just might find herself…next in line for murder.

My Review:

The socialite of the title, is Evelyn Elizabeth Grace Murphy, the daughter of the owner of the Pinnacle Hotel in Manhattan. Her penchant for finding missing items, such as a diplomat’s daughter or a supposedly stolen necklace lead to the search for a murderer when that murder occurs in her home and sanctuary – her father’s hotel where she lives in a top-floor suite designed and decorated just for her.

And her little purse dog Presley. Mustn’t ever forget Presley.

As a socialite, Evelyn lives to be seen, especially with her society page boyfriend, actor Henry Fox. Which is a bit of a problem, because Evelyn hasn’t left the Pinnacle in months. She can, but she can’t. When she was a little girl, she found her mother’s dead body just outside the hotel. The trauma has been drawing her in ever since, to the point where agoraphobia keeps her from leaving her sanctuary – the Pinnacle.

But Evelyn’s whole world teeters on a tightrope. Her romance with Henry Fox is a ruse, concocted of her need to be featured in the society columns and his need to keep the world from discovering that he’s gay. They’re the best of friends.

Howsomever, Evelyn is also friends with Mac Cooper, one of the bellhops at her father’s hotel. Mac walks the dog, keeps Evelyn up with all the hotel gossip, and is entirely too good at more than a little bit of kiss and canoodle.

So when a high-profile artist is murdered in the hotel, Mac is the perfect person to help her stage distractions, pick the locks of rooms the police have closed off, and generally assist her with her own investigation into the crime. Because Henry Fox is the prime suspect, at least until the ham-fisted police latch onto someone even better – the hotel’s head of security.

But Evelyn isn’t going to let things rest. The sanctity of her sanctuary must be restored, and she’s just the woman to do it. All she has to do is juggle Mac, Henry and whatever other secret Henry is keeping long enough to figure out whodunnit.

Escape Rating B: The Socialite’s Guide to Murder isn’t quite a cozy, but it is a light and bubbly mystery that has much of the same appeal. The Pinnacle, while not a small town, does a surprisingly good job of functioning as one for the purpose of the story.

Evelyn as a heroine embodies both the “poor little rich girl” and “bird in a gilded cage” tropes. What’s a bit different is that her cage is completely self-imposed. There’s a lot of trauma hiding behind her ditzy, spoiled persona. She’s aware that the ditziness is an act, although she’s a bit oblivious about just how spoiled she is.

Which is reflected in her relationship with Mac. They may be, probably are, falling in love with each other. And it is more than a bit frothy and bubbly, but there’s an undertone to it that gave me more than a bit of pause while reading. There’s a rather vast power imbalance between them as she’s paying him $10 or $20 every single time he does something for her. $10 doesn’t sound like that much, but it’s the equivalent of $100 in today’s terms. It adds up to a lot of money. She’s initially not at all sure whether he’s her friend because he likes her or because she’s paying him and it doesn’t feel like she worries about it nearly enough.

(If that shoe were on the other foot it would be an extremely squicky situation. It’s not less squicky because of the role reversal even if it’s intended to feel that way.)

Once I was able to let my willing suspension of disbelief set all of that aside, the mystery itself is a lot of fun. I did guess that the initial art heist that kicks things off wasn’t exactly what it seemed, but the murder that followed had plenty of tasty red herrings to fish for and tempting would-be clues to sent this reader on many an enjoyable wild goose chase.

The setting of the mystery within the confines of this great and grand hotel was a treat. It still felt like a cozy in a setting that isn’t really cozy at all. More like elegant and opulent, and it was a pleasure to read the way it all worked and how Evelyn’s world came together.

So the mystery is appropriately puzzling, the setting is different in a delicious way and the heroine and her little dog are fun to follow. If you like your mysteries with more than a bit of bubble and froth The Socialite’s Guide to Murder is a lovely little read.

And for anyone who enjoyed The Three Dahlias, Evelyn Elizabeth Grace Murphy the amateur sleuth would fit right into their crime solving shenanigans – once she is able to leave the Pinnacle. Maybe in the next book in the series.

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Review: The Three Dahlias by Katy Watson

Review: The Three Dahlias by Katy WatsonThe Three Dahlias (Dahlia Lively #1) by Katy Watson
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Dahlia Lively #1
Pages: 304
Published by Hachette Books, Mobius on July 26, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Three rival actresses team up to solve a murder at the stately home of the author who made them famous - only to discover the solution lies in the stories themselves. A contemporary mystery with a Golden Age feel, perfect for fans of Agatha Christie and Jessica Fellowes.
In attendance: the VIP fans, staying at Aldermere; the fan club president turned convention organizer; the team behind the newest movie adaptation of Davenport's books; the Davenport family themselves - and the three actresses famous for portraying Lettice's 1930s detective, Dahlia Lively.
National treasure Rosalind King, from the original movies. TV Dahlia for thirteen seasons, Caro Hooper. And ex-child star Posy Starling, fresh out of the fame wilderness (and rehab) to take on the Dahlia mantle for the new movie.
Each actress has her own interpretation of the character - but this English summer weekend they will have to put aside their differences, as the crimes at Aldermere turns anything but cosy.
When fictional death turns into real bodies, can the three Dahlias find the answers to the murders among the fans, the film crew, the family - or even in Lettice's books themselves?

My Review:

The Three Dahlias is intended to take readers back to the genteel but thrilling mysteries of Dame Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and Marjory Allingham but with a contemporary twist. What better way to combine the golden age of mystery with the present than by a convention of mystery fans, set on the grounds where one of their favorite mystery series was written, with not one but three of the actors playing their favorite character serving as guests of honor?

It may sound like a scheme guaranteed to give the fans the experience of a lifetime. But anyone who was a true student of those mysteries would tell you that the convention is also the perfect setting for murder. If only to provide the once and future Dahlias with the opportunity to solve either their last – or their first – case.

All they have to do is stop trying to one-up each other long enough to figure out whodunnit.

Escape Rating B: Although there’s a mystery, this isn’t really about the mystery. It’s about the people, and very much like Knives Out, about the relationships between the people and where the hidden stress points are.

That no one is going to miss the victims makes it that much easier for the reader to sink into the story and just enjoy the fun – even if it does take the first third of the book to really get going.

Because first we have those three Dahlias, and they are much more interesting than the murder. The three women represent different stages of life and different points in a career. If this were a fantasy they’d be the classic female triptych of maiden, mother, crone. Or perhaps the Fates. Certainly the fate of both the victims and the perpetrator.

It all starts with someone who seems to be out to get all of them – only for that person to end up getting got. And not by any of them. But along the way, what makes the story fun is the way that these women, literally set up to be rivals at every turn, band together in an unusual bond of sisterhood.

After all, they are all Dahlia, and it’s up to Dahlia to investigate murder when she sees it.

What made this fun as a reader was that I kept wanting to figure out, not so much whodunnit, as ‘who is Dahlia?’ (The idea of the convention seems more than plausible. After all, there is an annual Agatha Christie convention in Torquay.) The thing is that Dahlia Lively reminds me a lot of Phryne Fisher, but that series didn’t even start being published until 1989. There’s not enough history.

There have been more than enough Miss Marples, but that’s a role that an actor takes on much later in her career. Tommy and Tuppence hasn’t been filmed nearly often enough. But it’s fun to imagine.

The Three Dahlias turned out to be light and frothy fun. It’s a lovely little mystery, very atmospheric as a murder at a fan convention (my favorite in this vein is STILL Bimbos of the Death Sun), and as an homage to the Golden Age of Mystery and as a classic country-house murder all rolled into one.

If you’re looking for a light distraction filled with just the right amount of found sisterhood and murderous intentions, The Three Dahlias is quite the treat.

Review: A Death in Door County by Annelise Ryan

Review: A Death in Door County by Annelise RyanA Death in Door County (Monster Hunter Mystery, #1) by Annelise Ryan
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Monster Hunter Mystery #1
Pages: 336
Published by Berkley Books on September 13, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A Wisconsin bookstore owner and cryptozoologist is asked to investigate a series of deaths that just might be proof of a fabled lake monster in this first installment of a new mystery series by USA Today bestselling author Annelise Ryan.
Morgan Carter, owner of the Odds and Ends bookstore in Door County, Wisconsin, has a hobby. When she's not tending the store, she's hunting cryptids--creatures whose existence is rumored, but never proven to be real. It's a hobby that cost her parents their lives, but one she'll never give up on.
So when a number of bodies turn up on the shores of Lake Michigan with injuries that look like bites from a giant unknown animal, police chief Jon Flanders turns to Morgan for help. A skeptic at heart, Morgan can't turn down the opportunity to find proof of an entity whose existence she can't definitively rule out. She and her beloved rescue dog, Newt, journey to the Death's Door strait to hunt for a homicidal monster in the lake--but if they're not careful, they just might be its next victims.

My Review:

Yesterday’s book left me with a hankering for a mystery I could really sink my teeth into. I just wasn’t expecting the teeth to be quite as large as they turned out to be in A Death in Door County. This book is the kind of mystery that really takes a chomp out of each and every one of its rather tasty red herrings.

Calling Morgan Carter’s side gig as a cryptozoologist a hobby – as the book’s blurb does – isn’t strictly accurate. It’s more like a passion. Or a calling. Or a way to feel closer to her late parents by carrying on their work.

Perhaps all of the above.

Live Coelacanth off Pumula on the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast, South Africa in 2019

She also has degrees in both biology and zoology, so she’s definitely a scientifically trained cryptozoologist. And, perhaps as a consequence of those degrees, a skeptical one. She doesn’t believe in Bigfoot or Sasquatch or Chupacabra. Nessie she’s a bit more equivocal on. Not so much on Nessie herself, but rather the possibility that some kind of deep water creature might have managed to hide from humans for millennia – because that’s really happened. Coelacanths, thought to be extinct for 66 MILLION years, turned up very much alive if not exactly flourishing in 1938. The current population is considered either endangered or vulnerable depending on subspecies, but the re-discovery of the coelacanth does give Morgan hope that another such creature could be found in the modern day.

Which is what leads Washington Island Police Chief Jon Flanders to the door of Morgan’s rather eclectic bookstore in mainland Door County. He’s got a couple of dead bodies that look like they got mauled by something that hasn’t been identified. Something with a very large mouth and rather big teeth. He’s worried it might be a cryptid. He’s equally worried that it might be someone or something mimicking a cryptid. Whether it is or it isn’t, he’s really, really worried that if word gets out either the tourists the area depends on for income will get scared away, or that the curious and the cryptid hunters will flock to the area in droves and interfere with the investigation.

So he hires Morgan to go hunting. To either find a cryptid, or reliably rule one out. Before the body count gets any higher.

Escape Rating B: This series opener kicks off its mystery series with a couple of surprising twists for something that is billed as a cozy, beginning with its protagonist Morgan Carter. Cryptozoology isn’t a vocation or even an avocation that is high on the list of ‘usual’ careers for amateur detectives – although bookstore owner certainly is.

But it is what makes her investigation so fascinating. Because she starts out looking at whether or not it’s scientifically possible for a cryptid to be involved in the crimes – but she doesn’t stop there. She’s not looking for Nessie or her Great Lakes equivalent, she’s looking for who or what might have done the damage exhibited on the victims. Which might – or might not – come back to Nessie. Or at least her North American kin.

Which means that Morgan is also looking into the victims, as well as into the conditions in and around Lake Michigan. And it’s in that investigation that she keeps running into Police Chief Flanders – who isn’t always all that thrilled. Because Morgan keeps stepping on, over and around police procedure to get her answers – and locking horns with Flanders.

It’s clear fairly early on that whatever is roiling the waters around Door County is human in origin. After all, sea monsters, no matter how terrifying, do not enter bookstores unnoticed, nor do they hit people on the head and leave notes pinned to knick-knacks with knives.

What’s roiling between Morgan and “Flatfoot Flanders” is even harder to pin down. They are clearly interested in each other but they both have issues in their respective pasts that are going to make any potential romantic relationship a bit dicey.

After all, Flanders got the recommendation to hire Morgan from his uncle, a cop in Delaware who STILL seems to believe that Morgan was responsible for the deaths of her parents.

She wasn’t, but that’s another story that leads to one of my pet peeves about this book, of which I have three. I did really enjoy the mystery, and I genuinely liked that the setting and the characters were a bit different from the ‘usual suspects’.

But, and perhaps this was because of the place and the people not being those usual suspects, there was a fair bit of infodumping about Lake Michigan, its wreck-filled maritime history, and the danger of its currents and undercurrents. Morgan also got rather far in-depth into the nature of potential marine cryptids. While necessary, it felt like both went on past the point of too much of a good thing.

The second quibble was that the solution to the mystery came completely out of deep left field until nearly the end. I knew it was a human agency and not a cryptid, but the human agents weren’t even on the radar until about the 75% mark of the story. I was not expecting a fair play mystery but I would still expect to see some of the perps in advance of the race-to-the-finish ending.

And last but not least we get back to the death of Morgan’s parents a couple of years before this story begins. Because Morgan has an EvilEx™ to beat all previous evil exes. He killed her parents when they finally figured out that he wasn’t who he said he was. He nearly managed to pin the murders on Morgan because no one ever saw him. AND he’s still out there. He was a huge Chekhov’s Gun hanging over the entire story. While it does explain Morgan’s trust issues in regards to men in general and Flanders in particular, the lack of closure in that part of the story hung over this first entry in the series like that proverbial Sword of Damocles. It’s obvious that if this series continues that issue should be resolved. Right now it’s hanging like a shoe that needs to drop in ways that left me unsatisfied at the end of this story.

Not that the villains of this entry in the series don’t get most of what they deserve. But they read like giant red herrings for a true villain left waiting in the wings. But I want to see that villain get his, one way or another. So I’ll be back for the next entry in this series in the hopes of catching him hiding in the shadows.

Review: Mirror Lake by Juneau Black

Review: Mirror Lake by Juneau BlackMirror Lake by Juneau Black
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Shady Hollow #3
Pages: 240
Published by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard on April 26, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads


The third novel in the Shady Hollow mystery series, in which Vera Vixen takes on her most challenging case yet: solving the murder of a rat who appears to still be alive.

Change is afoot in Shady Hollow, with an unusually tense election shaping up between long-serving Chief of Police Theodore Meade and Vera's beau, Deputy Orville Braun. But the political tension takes a back seat when resident eccentric Dorothy Springfield becomes convinced her beloved husband, Edward, is dead, and that the rat claiming to be him is actually a fraud.
While most of the town dismisses Dorothy's rants as nothing more than a delusion, Vera has her doubts. More than a few things don't add up in the Springfield household, but Vera will have to tread carefully, since, with Orville's attention on the election, she may be more exposed than ever.
A VINTAGE CRIME/BLACK LIZARD ORIGINAL.

My Review:

And we’re back in the very cozy, slightly twee village of Shady Hollow for one more bloody (as in there’s actual dripping blood) mystery among this (mostly) charming group of people who just happen to be animals.

Don’t let that bit fool you. All stories are about people – even if they claim they’re not. Because people are all we know how to be – and we’re the ones writing the story.

Adora Springfield is dead – but this isn’t about her. Except when it is. Adora was, all things considered, adored by pretty much everyone in Shady Hollow and the neighboring, even smaller community of Mirror Lake. She lived a long life and contributed a lot to both communities. She’ll be mourned and she’ll be missed. And she left an estate worth killing for, tied up in an estate-planning tangle that is going to require both a lawyer and an investigative journalist to unravel.

Chief of Police Theodore Meade is a deadbeat. Not exactly, as he’s earning a decent salary as the leader of Shady Hollow’s two-bear police department. But he’s not doing the job. At all. Pretty much ever. He’s too “busy” fishing, leaving all the policing in town to his deputy-bear Orville Braun.

And Orville is pretty much sick of doing all the work and not being sure whether or not he’s getting any of the credit.

The case and the campaign both revolve – one clockwise and one anti-clockwise – around the person of investigative reporter and fox-about-town Vera Vixen. As a reporter for the local newspaper, the death of one of the town’s leading lights and the first contested campaign for Police Chief in years are both juicy stories that Vera is itching to dig her way into and write all about.

But Orville and Vera are romantically involved, even as they butt heads over pretty much every case. She can’t cover his campaign – no matter how much her boss wants her to use her “inside track” to get the real scoop. Her boss is GREAT at selling newspapers but LOUSY at journalistic ethics.

It’s Vera’s search for a bit of legal cover to protect her job with that leads her into the Springfield case. A case that Orville – and the rest of the town – refuse to see as a real case at all.

Dorothy Springfield, known to all and sundry as “Dotty” for her occasional flakiness, has returned from tending to her now-late mother-in-law and taking care of the funeral arrangements to cause a very public scene by claiming that her husband is NOT her husband. That her real husband is dead and whoever this rat (literally, the Springfields are the wealthiest rats in town) may look like her beloved Edward but he is absolutely NOT her Edward.

Everyone is certain that Dotty is just being dotty again. Vera has doubts. Initially little ones, as Dotty’s reputation has definitely preceded her – but doubts that are worth digging into because they’ll make an excellent story.

A story that nearly gets Vera killed. Again.

Escape Rating B+: This was not the book I originally planned to finish the week with, but that one (Last Exit) turned out to be a bit more book than I had time to chew at the end of this week. (I’m listening to the audio and it’s good but it’s also longer than I thought. The best laid plans of mice, men and book reviewers and all that.)

So I returned to Shady Hollow for one more lovely if murderous time. And it turned out to be a charming way to finish out the week.

On its surface, Mirror Lake is a typical cozy mystery set in a typical if somewhat twee small town. That all the people are animals adds to its charm for me, but may add to its twee-ness for others. YMMV but I like visiting the place.

The two cases are the bread and butter of this kind of story. A minor conflict between the townsfolk, a case of everyone in town knowing everyone else’s business and maintaining their assumptions about the people they know so well, and a twisty little bit of murder, with an amateur sleuth in the middle of entirely too many things for probability to have any bearing whatsoever.

(I always think that Cabot Cove and Midsummer County must have such a ridiculously high homicide rate that newcomers would stay far, far, away – but they never do.)

Series like Shady Hollow, whether featuring humans or animals-as-humans, are more about the town and its inhabitants than it is about the murders that take place. Which is a good thing in Mirror Lake as I figured out whodunnit long before the big reveal at the end.

The fun in the story is watching it all work itself out. Vera is both determined and dogged (whatever her species might be), but she’s also compassionate and caring and has invested herself thoroughly in her new home of Shady Hollow. As an amateur investigator, operating mostly on her own, she’s also very much a “fools rush in” type, putting herself in extreme danger in every book because she tends to figure out whodunnit by poking her nose into the killer’s business without being aware that she’s THAT close to the solution.

Which makes following Vera a lot of fun as she drops into Joe’s Mug for life-giving coffee, consults her best friend, bookstore owner Lenore for advice and crime-solving hints, and flirts and fights with her bearish beau whenever they both have a break between cases.

Unfortunately, this is the last – so far, at least – full length novel in the Shady Hollow series. There’s one very short novella, Evergreen Chase, left to go. It’s a holiday story, so I think I’ll save it for when fall starts to nip the air. Or whenever I need a bit of Vera’s animal magnetism.

Review: Under Lock and Skeleton Key by Gigi Pandian

Review: Under Lock and Skeleton Key by Gigi PandianUnder Lock & Skeleton Key (Secret Staircase Mystery, #1) by Gigi Pandian
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery, suspense, thriller
Series: Secret Staircase #1
Pages: 352
Published by Minotaur Books on March 15, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Under Lock & Skeleton Key layers architecture with mouthwatering food in an ode to classic locked-room mysteries.
An impossible crime. A family legacy. The intrigue of hidden rooms and secret staircases.
After a disastrous accident derails Tempest Raj’s career, and life, she heads back to her childhood home in California to comfort herself with her grandfather’s Indian home-cooked meals. Though she resists, every day brings her closer to the inevitable: working for her father’s company. Secret Staircase Construction specializes in bringing the magic of childhood to all by transforming clients’ homes with sliding bookcases, intricate locks, backyard treehouses, and hidden reading nooks.
When Tempest visits her dad’s latest renovation project, her former stage double is discovered dead inside a wall that’s supposedly been sealed for more than a century. Fearing she was the intended victim, it’s up to Tempest to solve this seemingly impossible crime. But as she delves further into the mystery, Tempest can’t help but wonder if the Raj family curse that’s plagued her family for generations—something she used to swear didn’t exist—has finally come for her.

My Review:

Under Lock and Skeleton Key is the first book in the author’s Secret Staircase Mystery series. With that series title, it sounds like this should be a case for Nancy Drew – and it sorta/kinda is.

A grown-up Nancy Drew who grew up sharing her love of puzzle solving and misdirection with her BFF. A BFF she ghosted ten years back. A hurt they’ll both have to get over in order to get this mystery-solving partnership back together.

It’s also the story of Tempest Raj and her family’s very special construction company, Secret Staircase Construction. Because that’s what her family builds – homes and offices with hidden doors, concealed nooks and yes – secret staircases.

Tempest Raj is back home in California in her family’s eclectic, multi-ethnic and multi-family, nearly vertical piece of almost-paradise. She’s back licking her still-smarting wounds after the literal explosion of her career as a famous – and now infamous – Las Vegas stage magician. EVERYONE in the industry and on social media blames Tempest for the trick that went catastrophically wrong in both water AND fire, but Tempest is certain that the costly disaster was the result of her body-double assistant attempting to paint Tempest as a risk too dangerous to back or insure, in the hopes that said assistant could finally become the main event.

Instead the show shut down, putting everyone out of work – including said duplicitous assistant – while Tempest has been forced to retreat back home after losing her Las Vegas house along with her reputation. She’s waiting for the other shoe to drop, or should that be shoes, as it seems like everyone involved has threatened to sue her.

But her successful show wasn’t just her success, the money she earned allowed her to keep her family’s business, Secret Staircase Construction, afloat. Now that money is gone and she’s back home hoping that she won’t have to resort to taking a job that doesn’t exist as part of her dad’s somewhat misfit crew. A crew he can barely afford as it is.

When her dad calls her to report to a job site, she’s sure that fate has just come upon her. Instead, her dad needs her to look at the house they’re currently working on because they’ve found something that is more in her professional line than his. They’ve spotted a dead body in an enclosed space that no one has opened in a century – and none of them can figure out how it got there.

That kind of trap door illusion is just the sort of thing that Tempest specialized in, so she’s intrigued by the puzzle – at least until she’s chilled by the discovery that the dead body isn’t merely too recent to have been walled up for a century. When the wall is opened, Tempest recognizes the corpse just a bit too well. Her duplicitous assistant, Tempest’s near-duplicate, is dead – and the woman didn’t wrap her own corpse in a sack and put itself in a locked room.

The woman is dead. The biggest question in Tempest’s mind is whether she was killed for herself – or in place of the woman she resembled so strongly. It’s up to Tempest and her friends to figure out both whodunnit and who was intended to be done before the killer catches up with her!

Escape Rating A-: This cozy mystery thriller – as much of a contradiction in terms as that feels – is a mystery wrapped in an enigma enclosed in a puzzle in a way that is shot through with both magic and suspense. But the magic in Tempest’s life and in her family’s Anglo-Indian history is mostly of the stage magic variety.

This is also a mystery that manages to pay homage to the classics of the genre – from Agatha Christie and John Dickinson Carr to Scooby-Doo, without ever falling into the trap of slavish imitation – no matter how many hidden switches and actual trap doors the story has built into it.

But this is not a fair play mystery, unlike so many of those classics. It’s a mystery of misdirection, both for Tempest AND for the reader. It’s also the story of how Tempest gets her own “Scooby gang” together to help her solve the mystery.

A mystery that manages to contain so many red herrings that it’s a surprise that her grandfather – an excellent cook whose lovingly described dishes are guaranteed to make the reader’s mouth water – doesn’t take the opportunity to cook them up into something delicious. (His recipes at the end of the book all sound scrumptious!)

The initial crime seems impossible – a locked room mystery that would tax Holmes’ famous logic and Poirot’s little grey cells at the same time. But the rules about locked room mysteries point the way to possibilities that make the impossible not quite so impossible. Tempest just needs to color-code those red herrings.

But the story is also hedged around with family fears and family secrets. Everyone seems to be protecting Tempest – and themselves – from a truth that no one wants to talk about. There might be a curse on their family going all the way back to their roots in India under the Raj.

And it all might be just another one of those tasty red herrings.

It’s only once Tempest is able to pull a tiny thread of one of the many tangled threads in this case – in the Locked Room Library no less! – that she is finally able to tease out a solution. Not just to this convoluted case – but to the question that has been plaguing her since the day she came home. The question about what’s next for Tempest. And in working towards a resolution to the mystery, she finally finds her answer.

Tempest’s answer means that this is the beginning of what looks like it will be a fun and fascinating series – one that I am very much looking forward to exploring. In the meantime, I’ll just have to go back to some of this author’s other cozily magical mystery series. I’ve already read a bit of her Jaya Jones Treasure Hunt series (The Ninja’s Illusion) and now I have the perfect excuse to go back!

Review: Cold Clay by Juneau Black

Review: Cold Clay by Juneau BlackCold Clay by Juneau Black
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Shady Hollow #2
Pages: 240
Published by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard on March 1, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads


The second book in the Shady Hollow series, in which some long-buried secrets come to light, throwing suspicion on a beloved local denizen.

It's autumn in Shady Hollow, and residents are looking forward to harvest feasts. But then a rabbit discovers a grisly crop: the bones of a moose.
Soon, the owner of Joe's Mug is dragged out of the coffeeshop and questioned by the police about the night his wife walked out of his life--and Shady Hollow--forever. It seems like an open-and-shut case, but dogged reporter Vera Vixen doesn't believe gentle Joe is a killer. She'll do anything to prove his innocence. . .even if it means digging into secrets her neighbors would rather leave buried.
A VINTAGE CRIME/BLACK LIZARD ORIGINAL.

My Review:

OK, so the Shady Hollow series is ostensibly a story about extremely anthropomorphized animals acting like the standard characters in a small town cozy mystery. In this particular case, the small town is Shady Hollow and the coziness includes more than a bit of fur.

But also more than a bit of quite literal teeth and claws. Even when the victim and/or the perpetrator are not actually equipped with any or all of those accouterments. As it proved in the first book in this series, named for the town where the mystery takes place, Shady Hollow.

In the first story, two of the village’s less popular residents became what everyone believed were the town’s first murder victims in seemingly ever. The case was all about whittling down the list of who might have done it because motives, at least on the surface, were all too easy to imagine.

This time around, it’s more of a case of intrepid investigative reporter Vera Vixen doing her level best to prove that the obvious suspect isn’t the actual guilty party. Because everybody in town loves Joe Elkins and his coffee shop. Not just because he keeps everyone fed and caffeinated, but because he’s just such a nice person and a pillar of the community in more ways than one.

But Joe has ALL the motives for the murder of his long-missing wife. Everyone thought she left town years ago, unable or unwilling to settle down to small town life running the coffee shop with her spouse and raising their son, Joe, Jr.

The discovery of Julia Elkins skeletal remains in the roots of a fruit tree that wasn’t doing all that well puts Joe in the crosshairs of the police investigation into yet another murder. Joe IS the obvious suspect – not just because it’s ALWAYS the husband (except when it isn’t) – but because Julia was so obviously unhappy, she and Joe were constantly arguing, and someone robbed the coffeeshop just before she disappeared. That’s a LOT of motives.

It doesn’t help Joe’s case that relatively few of Shady Hollow’s residents would even be capable of taking down a full-grown moose!

Vera is certain that the police, in the persons of perpetually fishing Chief Theodore Meade and Vera’s possible beau, Deputy Orville Braun have the wrong person in their sights. And she has every intention of proving that her friend Joe is innocent.

But her boss, the owner of the Shady Hollow Herald, orders Vera to drop her murder investigation in favor of writing fluff pieces about a new business in Shady Hollow that has tempted the veteran newspaper owner with dreams of full-page ad revenues.

New mink-about-town Octavia Grey, with her striking silver coat and her hoity-toity new “School of Etiquette” has all the local gossips twittering. The newspaper wants a piece of that pie, but Vera is sure that there’s something not quite on the up-and-up about the so-called school and its mesmerizing owner. She thinks taking etiquette classes is a waste of time when she should be looking into the latest murder.

It’s only when she digs a bit deeper into both cases that she begins to suspect the two cases might be one and the same!

Escape Rating B: My reading of Cold Clay was a case of how I felt about the book being influenced by my circumstances as I was reading the book. I was stuck in a small airport for 12 hours and I was looking for stories that would take me away – hopefully far away – from where I was sitting at the time. Having read and enjoyed the first book in this series, Shady Hollow, I knew this was a world that I could step into for a couple of hours and just be gone for a bit. (I read a LOT of books that day!)

The world of Shady Hollow reminds me of the movie Zootopia. The characters are basically humans in fur-suits who populate this small town and this cozy mystery with the stock characters we expect in a cozy – just with a little bit extra.

It’s not nearly as twee as you might think it will be – or at least not any more twee than the usual small town with a much higher homicide rate than anyone would think a town that size would be able to support.

Like in many such mysteries, the reader is aware that the long arm of coincidence just isn’t that long. If a new person arrives in town, and an old crime is uncovered, the odds are that the two are somehow connected. And so it proves in Cold Clay.

In other words, I figured out that Octavia Grey had something to do with Julia Elkins’ long-ago murder long before Vera did – even if I didn’t yet have a clue as to how she done it. THAT she done it was pretty obvious.

And it didn’t matter. What makes this series so charming are its people, as is true of most small town cozies. I liked visiting Shady Hollow, and I like the people who live there, fur-suits and all. I went into this story expecting to be charmed and entertained and I was not disappointed in either of those respects. The story did exactly what I wanted it to do – it whisked me away for a couple of hours and that was just fine.

But speaking of expectations, one of the other frequent expectations of cozies is that the investigators, whether professional or amateur, will find some kind of romance along the way, even if that romance is of the on-again, off-again variety. Vera’s relationship with Deputy Orville Braun has been edging in that direction since the first book, to the amusement of MANY of Shady Hollow’s residents.

As difficult a time as I’m having trying NOT to imagine how that could possibly work in the physical aspects, the push-pull dance of wanting to protect vs. needing to prove oneself an equal has more heart than I expected.

I hope they figure it out. It’s one of the things I’ll be looking for in what seems to be the final book in the series, Mirror Lake, next month when it comes out.

Review: Shady Hollow by Juneau Black

Review: Shady Hollow by Juneau BlackShady Hollow (Shady Hollow #1) by Juneau Black
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Shady Hollow #1
Pages: 240
Published by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard on January 25, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads


The first book in the Shady Hollow series, in which we are introduced to the village of Shady Hollow, a place where woodland creatures live together in harmony--until a curmudgeonly toad turns up dead and the local reporter has to solve the case.

Reporter Vera Vixen is a relative newcomer to Shady Hollow. The fox has a nose for news, so when she catches wind that the death might be a murder, she resolves to get to the bottom of the case, no matter where it leads. As she stirs up still waters, the fox exposes more than one mystery, and discovers that additional lives are in jeopardy.
Vera finds more to this town than she ever suspected. It seems someone in the Hollow will do anything to keep her from solving the murder, and soon it will take all of Vera's cunning and quickness to crack the case.
A VINTAGE CRIME/BLACK LIZARD ORIGINAL.

My Review:

Shady Hollow (the book as opposed to the town IN the book) is the kind of story that doesn’t lend itself to the easy description and characterization you think it will.

The U.S. cover makes it look like this is going to be a somewhat twee story about animals acting like humans. And it IS a story about animals acting like humans, but it’s not nearly so twee as you think it will be.

The original U.K. cover (at left) does a bit better job of conveying the darkness that is lurking inside the sleepy little town of Shady Hollow. Because this is the opening book in a series of murder mysteries – admittedly pretty cozy murder mysteries – where all of the characters are VERY anthropomorphized animals.

On her way to work one morning, Vera Vixen, new fox in town, discovers the dead body of Shady Hollow’s least popular resident, the cantankerous toad Otto Sumpf. With a knife in his back.

The toad was such an argumentative old curmudgeon that it’s not all that big a surprise that someone finally got angry enough to kill him.

But there has never been a murder in Shady Hollow that anyone can remember. The police – both bears – aren’t so much stumped as completely out of their depth. Which is where Vera comes in.

Vera’s not just a fox – although it turns out that the deputy police bear certainly thinks she is. Vera is an investigative reporter for the local newspaper, the Shady Hollow Herald. Before she came to sleepy Shady Hollow, she was an investigative reporter for a newspaper in a much larger town – where there was, both naturally and unfortunately at the same time – much more crime than Shady Hollow.

So Vera knows how an investigation is supposed to go – even if Deputy Orville Braun is still reading the manual while his boss is off fishing. Again. Perpetually.

When the most prominent citizen in town joins the toad in the town’s temporary morgue – a vacant jail cell, Vera and Orville join forces to find and catch the killer before the creature catches one of them – and adds their body to the pile.

Escape Rating B: I’ve been trying to think of what this book reminds me of, and the closest I initially managed to come was The Constant Rabbit by Jasper Fforde, crossed with an adult version of the Beatrix Potter stories.

At its heart this is still a murder mystery, using those animals-as-people to tell a story that is really about people. Because that’s the perspective all writers have no matter what their characters claim to be.

So, like the Beatrix Potter stories, the author is using animals dressed as humans, doing human things, acting mostly like humans, to talk about what humans do while placing the story at one remove by making all the characters ostensibly animals.

The Constant Rabbit is both closer and further from the mark, as in that story the presence of the anthropomorphized rabbits alongside humans was used as a direct way of talking about shitty human behavior.

It’s possible the closest analogy to Shady Hollow is the movie Zootopia, and I’m a bit embarrassed about how long it took me to get there. And now that I come to think about it, the ending of Zootopia is even a bit of a spoiler for Shady Hollow.

So, we have the animal-citizens of Shady Hollow as the otherwise typical citizens of this cute, cozy and slightly quaint little town. And we have dead bodies piling up, a police chief who is always absent and everyone knows it, an ambitious deputy with no training, a nosy investigative reporter, etc., etc., etc. All fairly standard characters for a cozy mystery.

Viewed as creatures, they are adorable and the little touches that remind the reader these are animals draws the reader into the shtick with a smile. But the way the town thinks about itself, the motives for the crime spree, the investigation and most definitely the way that the nosy reporter nearly becomes part of the spree make this a fun, if slightly furry, cozy with just a bit of a twist.

So come for the animals – stay for the mystery. Or the other way around. It’s light, frothy and certainly fluffy either way. I’ll be back to visit Shady Hollow again in the next book in the series, Cold Clay. The amiable local coffee shop owner is about to be caught up in a hotter brew than anything he ever planned to serve.

Review: Grave Reservations by Cherie Priest

Review: Grave Reservations by Cherie PriestGrave Reservations by Cherie Priest
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery, paranormal, thriller, urban fantasy
Series: Booking Agents #1
Pages: 304
Published by Atria Books on October 26, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A psychic travel agent and a Seattle PD detective solve a murder in this quirky mystery in the vein of Lisa Lutz’s The Spellman Files and Charlaine Harris’s Aurora Teagarden series.
Meet Leda Foley: devoted friend, struggling travel agent, and inconsistent psychic. When Leda, sole proprietor of Foley's Flights of Fancy, impulsively re-books Seattle PD detective Grady Merritt’s flight, her life changes in ways she couldn’t have predicted.
After watching his original plane blow up from the safety of the airport, Grady realizes that Leda’s special abilities could help him with a cold case he just can’t crack.
Despite her scattershot premonitions, she agrees for a secret reason: her fiancé’s murder remains unsolved. Leda’s psychic abilities couldn’t help the case several years before, but she’s been honing her skills and drawing a crowd at her favorite bar’s open-mic nights, where she performs Klairvoyant Karaoke—singing whatever song comes to mind when she holds people’s personal effects. Now joined by a rag-tag group of bar patrons and pals alike, Leda and Grady set out to catch a killer—and learn how the two cases that haunt them have more in common than they ever suspected.

My Review:

Grave Reservations is a “no good deed goes unpunished” kind of story. Or a “may you live in interesting times” kind of story. With a heaping helping of karma being a bitch and being careful what you wish for because you just might get it.

Although not all of those things are visited on Leda Foley. It’s more like she sets all of them in motion with one surprising act. Leda Foley is a travel agent. She’s also a somewhat erratic psychic. Those two things combine when she gets a really bad feeling about one of her (very) few client’s upcoming flight from Orlando back home to Seattle.

She has a really bad feeling that if Grady Merritt makes his originally planned flight from Orlando to Seattle that he’s not going to make it home. Ever. Leda doesn’t know exactly what’s going to happen, only that it’s going to be fatal – at least for Grady.

So she rebooks him through Atlanta. (Leda’s not wrong, if you die in the south your corpse really will have to go through Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport.) Grady would have missed his flight anyway thanks to accident-delayed traffic on the way to the airport, but Leda rebooked him before he missed that plane. Which has Grady angry and yelling at her on the phone right up until the point where the plane he should have been on catches fire on the runway.

Leda’s relieved. Grady is too – but also a bit spooked. Once he gets over the shock and the gratitude, he turns up in Leda’s tiny office hoping that her psychic powers, the ones that saved his life, might also save this murder case that he can’t get out of his head.

Grady Merritt is a detective in the Seattle Police Department, and he’s got a multiple murder to solve that has been at a dead end for over a year and made very little sense even when it was all fresh. Asking Leda for help is pretty much the equivalent of grasping at straws, but he hasn’t had any better ideas – or actually even any worse ones – for months of digging.

He’s desperate. She’s wary but game. Very wary and not very game at all, so she tries her level best to lower his expectations as much as possible. Like all the way to the ground.

Only to hit paydirt on their very first try. Not much, and not something that he can take to a judge or even to his lieutenant, but enough to give him a place to start looking again.

Leda can’t resist helping – even when she shouldn’t – because her “spidey senses” are telling her that Grady’s case is linked to another unsolved murder – the murder of Leda’s fiancé. But the closer that Grady and Leda get to a solution, the more death follows in the wake of their investigation.

Leda has clearly found Grady a lead that someone else wants to close off – by turning as many investigative possibilities into “dead ends” as possible – before it’s too late.

Escape Rating A-: This was fun. In fact, this was a whole lot of fun. It hits just the right note of seriousness – after all, they are investigating not just one murder but a continuing series of murders – but the tone is still fairly lighthearted. It reminds me a bit of the early Stephanie Plum books with its lighthearted mayhem and quirky cast, while having more of a beating heart – and a few more brain cells – than it seemed like the later books in that series did. (While the blurb compares this to Charlaine Harris’ Aurora Teagarden series, it reminded me more of Harper Connelly. Your reading mileage may vary.)

The beating and broken heart of this story is Leda’s still healing (sometimes badly) trauma over the murder of her fiancé. Her life has gone on, but it’s not the same, it’s not going to be the same. Even if she gets her questions finally answered, her world has gone down a different path than it otherwise would have, and the scene of her in their storage locker still hunting for his scent among his old clothes was heartbreaking. As it should be.

At the same time, the life that Leda has cobbled together, while it isn’t quite working in a financial sense – at least not yet – does give her the emotional support that she needs and she is healing in that heartbreaking two-steps-forward-one-step-back kind of way.

Even through her tears, her thoughts and actions are often funny as hell. I’m still laughing about Princess Pookie and Mr. Wiggles, felines who were discovered to be the opposite genders of their names when Princess Pookie got Mr. Wiggles pregnant. The entire scene was just a perfect explanation of cats and their owners and how much we love them and they tolerate us. It was a literal laugh out loud moment that gave just the right amount of lift in the story when it was needed, as Leda reactions often did.

But the story manages to follow the conventions of a cozy mystery – even as it deals with situations that are far from cozy. Leda’s found family among the denizens of the bar Castaways, where she does her “Psychic Psongstress” (the manager’s name for it) act of “Klairvoyant Karaoke” (Leda’s name for it) are sweet and funny and affirming of a talent that Leda used to hide but is learning to use.

There was so much about this story and the people in it that I just fell in love with. It also does a terrific job of representing the Seattle that I used to live in, which made for a much more fun blast from the past than my actual residence there. I was just about ROFL at the description of the downtown Seattle library building where I used to work. It is exactly as the author described. Including the neon and the vertigo.

Main Seattle Library (photo from Wikipedia)

But I will also confess that the conflation of the King County Library System with the Seattle Public Library drove me nuts. They are two separate entities. Not that plenty of residents don’t totally mix up the two, because libraries. But still, it read wrong because I knew better.

That being said, now that my personal pet peeve is out of the way, I have to say that I loved Leda’s story and this opening chapter in a series that looks like it’s going to be Leda’s journey. I can’t wait to see what comes next!

Review: Fixing to Die by Miranda James

Review: Fixing to Die by Miranda JamesFixing to Die (Southern Ladies Mystery, #4) by Miranda James
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Southern Ladies Mystery #4
Pages: 294
Published by Berkley Books on October 3, 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The New York Times bestselling author of the Cat in the Stacks Mysteries and Digging Up the Dirt returns with the latest Southern Ladies Mystery...
It's autumn down south, and An'gel and Dickce Ducote are in Natchez, Mississippi, at the request of Mary Turner Catlin, the granddaughter of an old friend. Mary and her husband, Henry Howard, live in Cliffwood, one of the beautiful antebellum homes for which Natchez is famous.
Odd things have been happening in the house for years, and the French Room in particular has become the focal point for spooky sensations. The Ducotes suspect the ghostly goings-on are caused by the living, but when a relative of the Catlins is found dead in the room, An'gel and Dickce must sift through a haunted family history to catch a killer.

My Review:

What is it that makes cozy mysteries just so cozy and so much of a comfort to read? You’d think that the fact that they all start with a dead body would act against that, but it doesn’t. At all.

I’m caught up in this question because so many of my “comfort reads” are cozy mysteries. Because this has been a week where the weather has been so wet and gloomy that it makes a person want to curl up with a good book, a hot cup of tea and a cat and just wait for it all to go away – which won’t be until Saturday at the earliest and it’s been raining since Sunday. I couldn’t focus on any of the things I planned to read and ended up looking for a cozy mystery to sink into.

And here we are, Fixing to Die. Because this is the last book in the author’s Southern Ladies mystery series, although the adventures of the Cat in the Stacks seem to be continuing. Thank goodness.

So, on a damp and chilly autumn evening, when I couldn’t get into anything else, I found myself, along with sisters An’gel and Dickce Ducote, traveling from their home in Athena Mississippi to Natchez to help the granddaughter of an old friend out with her haunted antebellum bed and breakfast.

Only to find themselves in the midst of an acrimonious family drama – although thankfully one not even remotely their own this time, unlike the events in Dead with the Wind.

The practical-minded An’gel is certain that the ghostly happenings at Cliffwood are the result of a worldly rather than an otherworldly agent. Dickce is a bit more open-minded about the whole thing. After all, their own antebellum home has its share of inexplicable door-closings and perambulating knick-knacks.

But the humans who have gathered at Cliffwood make both the sisters more than a bit suspicious. Mary and Henry, the owners of the house, are fighting over just how much of their lives should be devoted to the care and feeding of the house and the guests they need to keep on keeping the house up to the standards of the Historical Society.

Mary’s cousin Nathan believes he’s entitled to the contents of one of the rooms in the house – based on an old will that he can’t find. That the room contains priceless antiques just adds to his motivations to make his cousin Mary and her husband Henry’s lives even more miserable. Nathan’s sister invites herself and her lawyer to the house in the hopes of loosening her brother’s grip on her trust fund.

Then a psychic medium knocks on the door, claiming that the spirits in the house have called to her to give them peace, and it’s clear that some kind of fix is in. If not multiple fixes.

When Nathan’s dead body is found in the morning in the room he claimed he owned, it’s more of a relief than it is a surprise. One of the lovely things about this series is that the person you most want to end up dead usually does in short order.

But with a corpse on their hands – again – the Ducote sisters can’t resist playing Nancy Drew in order to figure out how the murderer got into and out of the locked room containing the victim. So they can figure out whodunnit, and why, and how.

Because that’s what they do. They help the police solve murders – even when the police would much, much rather NOT be helped!

Escape Rating B: And we’re back to what makes cozy mysteries cozy, and why this particular series – and this particular author – have turned out to be such a cozy and comforting read for me.

I think what makes cozy mysteries cozy is a combination of two factors. A big one is the gang or group or family (found or birth or a combination) that surrounds the detectives, whether amateur or professional. An’gel and Dickce have each other of course, but they also have their 19-year-old ward, Benjy, and their companion animals, the Labradoodle Peanut who thinks An’gel hung the moon, and the Abyssinian cat Endora, who is certain that Dickce provides the best lap in the universe.

The sisters know everyone in Athena, and their friends and friends of friends, especially Athena’s chief homicide detective Kanesha Berry, extend their reach far and wide. And make everyone they come into contact with feel familiar – only because in a way they are.

There’s also the element of cozy mystery that’s sometimes referred to as the “romance of justice”. The reader knows going in that someone who might deserve it is going to die, and that whoever murdered them is going to get what’s coming to them. And that the murder will happen safely off-screen and that the murderer will receive their just desserts legally as well as righteously. No vigilantes, very little blood and gore, and everybody walks away, with the perpetrator walking away in handcuffs in police custody.

All’s well that ends well. And cozy mysteries invariably end well. It’s part of their charm, and it’s part of the comfort they provide, that the world can be rational, that good triumphs and evil gets an appropriate punishment.

Fixing to Die turned out to be exactly what I was looking for on a very rainy autumn night. The cast of characters is a lot of fun, the family shenanigans are interesting and are somebody else’s, the murder victim needed to be taken out of the gene pool and his murderer got their just desserts. The sisters saved the day – as they always do – and their animals are along to provide just the right touch of comic relief.

This series has just the right amount of sass mixed in with the sweet, and I’m sorry that it seems to have ended with this story. Although I wouldn’t mind visiting with the Ducote sisters again, either in a future book of their own or whenever Athena’s amateur detective and professional librarian, Charlie Harris and his big Cat in the Stacks Diesel need a bit of the Ducote’s local knowledge or wide span of influence around town.

I’ll be back to visit Charlie and Diesel in Athena early next spring with Hiss Me Deadly, and I’m definitely looking forward to the trip!

Review Digging Up the Dirt by Miranda James

Review Digging Up the Dirt by Miranda JamesDigging Up the Dirt (Southern Ladies Mystery, #3) by Miranda James
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery
Series: Southern Ladies Mystery #3
Pages: 296
Published by Berkley on September 6, 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The New York Times bestselling author of Dead with the Wind and Bless Her Dead Little Heart is back with more of those sleuthing Southern belles, the Ducote sisters...
An’gel and Dickce Ducote, busy with plans for the Athena Garden Club’s spring tour of grand old homes, are having trouble getting the other club members to help. The rest of the group is all a-flutter now that dashing and still-eligible Hadley Partridge is back to restore his family mansion. But the idle chatter soon turns deadly serious when a body turns up on the Partridge estate after a storm...   The remains might belong to Hadley’s long-lost sister-in-law, Callie, who everyone thought ran off with Hadley years ago. And if it’s not Callie, who could it be? As the Ducotes begin uncovering secrets, they discover that more than one person in Athena would kill to be Mrs. Partridge. Now An’gel and Dickce will need to get their hands dirty if they hope to reveal a killer’s deep-buried motives before someone else’s name is mud...

My Review:

Honestly, I picked this one up because I just felt like it. I was looking for something that would be both familiar and new at the same time, and this seemed like it would be it. And it was.

Also, I really enjoyed the first book in this series, Bless Her Dead Little Heart, so even though I was a bit disappointed in Dead with the Wind I like this author more than enough to want to see if the third time would be the charm. And I had high hopes for a cameo from the main characters in the author’s other series, Cat in the Stacks, so I was very happy to see a bit – but not too much – of librarian Charlie Harris and his gentlemanly Maine Coon cat Diesel.

The story in Digging Up the Dirt reads like it’s at the intersection of two “old” sayings. The first is from the late, much-lamented Terry Pratchett, who said in the book Moving Pictures that “inside every old person is a young person wondering what happened.” More likely wondering what the HELL happened, but the thought is definitely there.

The quote it intersects with is something that a friend used to say fairly often when her spouse had just done something she wished he hadn’t. Her comment was that “the problem (with spouses) is that you can’t live with ‘em and you can’t bury ‘em in the backyard because the dogs will dig them up”

The Ducote sisters, An’gel and Dickce, along with the rest of the Athena Garden Club, have been rather abruptly confronted with the truth of the Pratchett quote when Hadley Partridge returns to Athena after a four-decade absence.

When Hadley left Athena all those years ago, he left the entire Garden Club in a veritable tizzy, as he was charming, handsome, rich and flirting with every single member of the club. When he left town, rumor had it that his brother threw him out of the family mansion in a fit of jealousy. Everyone in Athena, including, unfortunately for Hadley, his older brother, was just absolutely certain that Hadley was having an affair with his brother’s wife.

So when that same woman, Hadley’s sister-in-law Callie Partridge, disappeared without a trace a few days after Hadley’s abrupt departure, everyone just assumed that she ran off after Hadley.

At least that’s what everyone assumed until Hamish Partridge died and left the family manse to his brother Hadley. When Hadley returned to Athena, and got the entire Garden Club into pretty much the same tizzy he left them in, he claimed that he had not seen Callie in the intervening 40 years.

Then the Ducote sisters’ labradoodle, Peanut, digs up a body in the backyard of the Partridge estate. A body that goes a long way towards explaining where Callie Partridge has been “hiding” for all these years.

But doesn’t get either amateur sleuths An’gel and Dickce Ducote or Sherriff’s Detective Kanesha Berry much further in their hunt for the person who is killing the members of the Garden Club in the here and now.

Escape Rating A-: Except for the Ducote sisters, whose ages seem to be fixed at 80 and 84 for the entirety of this series, we don’t actually know the ages of the rest of the Athena Garden Club. Just that all of them were adults and Garden Club members 40 years previously, making all of them somewhere north of 60, if not quite as far north as An’gel and Dickce Ducote.

What I loved about all of them, even the ones that are crazy as betsy bugs, is that they are all, to a woman, vital and independent and healthy and active. (Physically healthy at least although there are one or two whose mental health may be – and have always been – a bit iffy.) And that it seems like everything they felt 40 years ago is just as alive in their heads and in their hearts – and possibly other places – now as it was then.

Their spirits are all still as willing as they ever were, even if the flesh occasionally creaks a bit. A feeling I can empathize with all too well – even if, or especially because, some of them were being really silly with it. Every bit as silly as they were 40 years ago. As another old saying goes, “we are too soon old and too late smart.”

The red herrings in this particular story are also steamed to a delectable turn. That there are murders to be solved in both the past and the present just adds to the number of different ways that the detectives and the reader can be led delightfully astray.

And we are all the way to the end. I was convinced until the very end that the present-day murderer was an entirely different party than the person who turned out to be guilty after all, although I did figure out Hadley’s secret slightly earlier than the Ducote sisters. Of course I wasn’t having any nostalgic or romantic ideas to cloud my judgment the way that they were.

There were two things that put this one head and shoulders over the previous book in the series. Except for the Ducote sisters and their traveling household of ward, dog and cat, there were very few likeable characters in Dead with the Wind. Which combined a bit too neatly with the second thing, that the story took An’gel and Dickce away from their home in Athena, robbing them of their usual support network and eliminating several people that the reader could have – and has – happily followed along with.

Which leaves me a tad worried about the final – at least so far – book in the series, Fixing to Die, which also takes the sisters and their household out of Athena. I’ll still be back for it, the next time I need the Ducote’s particular brand of reading comfort.