December Dread by Jess Lourey
December Dread by Jess Lourey (Midnight Ink, 2012) book 8 in the Murder-By-Month series and we’re back in Battle Lake, Minnesota as Mira James, our heroine, continues the demanding task of trailer-sitting, freelancing for the local newspaper, keeping the library shelves in order, and solving enough murders to justify the nickname Mortuary Mira. With only ten killing days to go before Christmas, she’s watching the elves carefully to see when they will deliver the next body. Except all she gets is what may be an invitation from the Candy Cane Killer — he’s the one who only kills brown-haired women about the same height and weight as our heroine during the month of December. Ah, so she could be the body. That would be a good switch — a kind of Ghost where she and Patrick Swayze get to make out while solving her murder. As a foretaste of the killing spree, two bodies are discovered over in White Plains — the woman and her dog — about an hour’s drive away. Unfortunately, that’s not a safe distance when it comes to dedicated serial killers. So she goes to show her invitation to Police Chief Gary Wohnt but discovers the card she received is part of a genuine marketing campaign. This doesn’t stop her from hitting the library’s computer. Before you can say Dagnabit or whatever her password is, she’s knee-deep in news about the killer. So because she fits the physical profile, Battle Lake conspires to send her home to her mother in Paynesville where she’s supposed to feel safer. Shame there’s Kevin Bacon and not Patrick Swayze on her old bedroom wall. The other advantage is the chance for her to go through the certification course for qualifying as a PI. If she gets a licence, she can legitimately earn a little money as an investigator rather than having to solve all these murders for free.
Then the next body appears. Santa’s really speeding up his deliveries this December, and he’s always thoughtful. This victim is the homecoming queen. Mira knew her at high school. It kinda keeps the death in the family. So, after some initial reluctance — the consensus seems to be you leave serial killers to the FBI — she and the indefatigable Mrs Berns decide to set a trap. Why leave it to the professionals to have all the fun. Yet there’s also the question of the orange begonias tugging at the back of her mind. Candy’s a bit crude in messaging terms. In Victorian times, flowers and their colours had specific meanings so, when people sent each other a bunch, they were actually sending each other coded messages. For the record, begonias were symbols of warning and orange is a reference to passion or desire. Not that this captures the meaning of Mira at all. She’s been practicing abstinence. In fact, it says something about the sender’s view of the women who received them. For those who can read the symbolism, they are being warned they are acting in a sexually inappropriate way.
I confess to becoming something of a fan of Mira James and so, by extension, Jess Lourey. As Mira demonstrates during both the PI course she goes through and in the real-world investigation, she has a flair for quick assessments of people and situations. Give her more time to think and she works through the available information and usually arrives at the right answer. As to Jess Lourey, she has a flair for creating an entirely credible cast of characters. Too often, you read a book and only encounter cardboard cutouts and stereotypes. December Dread is full of people you could meet in any small town anywhere in the world. As a final thought, I should explain the title. You can see it at two levels. If a serial killer with a known profile for selecting victims sends out candy calling cards, there’s bound to be dread in the community. But, in this instance, it’s also a reference to Mira’s need to overcome her fears about who she is and what she wants out of life. This is not simply a case of the girl coming back to her home town and facing those she knew as she was growing up. She should also make sober decisions about what to do about her love life. Sometimes, fear holds you back and stops you realising the potential in your life for happiness. December Dread is great fun with a nice puzzle for our heroine to solve. It’s definitely worth picking up! As a final thought: if you have a wooden leg, always hide it in plain sight.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.