Taken by the Wind by Ellen Hart
Taken by the Wind by Ellen Hart (Minotaur Books, 2013) is the twenty-first book in the Jane Lawless series. From this simple opening sentence, you’ll recognise that there’s a lot of backstory for the characters and that the development of this plot is as much about continuing their story as about presenting Lawless with another mystery to solve. This doesn’t mean you can’t read and enjoy this book as a standalone. It’s just that the story is more interesting if you know something of what has gone before. There’s another feature which should be mentioned at the outset for those of you who have not read any of these books. In genre terms, I suppose this is an example of cozy mystery. Our “amateur sleuth” is a restaurateur who has given into the pressure and acquired a PI licence in her home state of Minnesota. This gives her slightly more respectability in the crime-solving stakes. Nevertheless, the methodology is essentially the gentle accumulation of information from those involved and the local gossip. The only change is that our lady can now produce a formal business card to identify herself and so command slightly more respect when approaching strangers and asking questions.That said, this series is gay fiction. So if you prefer not to read a book in which all shades of sexuality are an integral part of what happens, walk away from this. Not only is Jane herself in a gay relationship, but the parents of one of the children who go missing in this book are also a gay couple.
So where are we in terms of the plot? Jane’s food and beverage business is going through restructuring. The shift in her interests requires more time is available for work as a PI. If she were to devote full-time effort to one of the two food outlets, she could probably turn it round. . . After much thought, she’s decided to sell it at a loss. There’s an element of sadness about seeing one of the her babies going, but this is the right decision for her. As a note of surprise, I note she never sets foot in the other outlet during this book. Although you can understand why the restaurant in not high on her list of priorities at this time, there’s a serious risk that business will go the same way as the other unless she keeps riding herd on the staff.
The source of events in this book is the potential kidnapping of two boys. Jane has two friends, Eric and Andrew. Their long-term relationship has broken up and they now live apart. This was distressing to their twelve-year-old son, Jack, who now spends more time with his best friend Gabriel — the son of Eric’s sister Suzanne Born who’s married to Branch Born. The local police are not too worried by the disappearance, but Jane finds certain features of their departure worrying. In due course a ransom demand arrives. Jane and her best friend, Cordelia Thorn, get into the business of an exchange. Unfortunately, even though the money is collected, the boys do not reappear. This seriously increases the stress of everyone involved, particularly when homophobic telephone calls and painted slogans appear suggesting this is punishment — men in a relationship should not be acting as parents — some of the local church are very conservative and so judgmental.
Because the small town in which all this takes place is under serious financial pressure, the local population finds itself less friendly. Many properties are underwater with the mortgage, there are foreclosure signs on some properties, and people have cut back on their spending so they can pay down their debts. In some ways, the community shows its resilience so, when there’s storm damage, neighbours rally round to clear fallen trees and repair each other’s homes. But unemployment is a reality for some residents or threatened for others. This would give some locals a motive to abduct the boys and demand money. It would help them pay down the mortgage. Rightly or wrongly, Eric and Andrew are thought well off. There’s also some resentment because they renovated properties for sale which were then overvalued for mortgage purposes. This was not their fault but it adds fuel to the resentment.
Given the way it all plays out, the kidnapping proves to open the proverbial can of worms and results in a pleasingly complicated solution. As a way of praising the author, aspects of the answer were a surprise which is how it should be in mysteries. On the personal front, the relationships between Jane, her current lover and her ex are growing impressively interwoven with a nice cliffhanger to take us into the next book. All of which leaves me with a satisfied smile on my face. Taken by the Wind creates real suspense as the boys disappear, the characters are all plausible (the disappearance of children causes distress to all regardless of the sexuality of those involved), and the mystery is a good puzzle to solve. You can’t ask for more than that.
For the review of another book by Ellen Hart, see Rest for the Wicked.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.