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January Thaw by Jess Lourey

September 30, 2013 Leave a comment

January Thaw by Jess Lourey

Well, here we are again with January Thaw by Jess Lourey (Midnight Ink, 2014) the ninth in The Murder-By-Month series, happy as can be, all good friends and jolly good company in Battle Lake. It being Minnesota, it’s snowing. Mrs Berns is acting like Cassandra and predicting the thaw to release the town from winter’s icy grip even though everyone knows spring won’t arrive until March. Christmas has passed with the garlands stored for next year’s celebrations along with the left-over candy canes for Halloween. Mira James has finally taken the plunge with Johnny Leeson (several months too late, some may say), a local attorney actually employs her as an investigator when the need arises (although she’s not yet formally qualified as a PI) and, given the way Death has pursued her over the last eight books, there’s been a lull. Yes no dead bodies for at least a week. For those of you who enjoy this series, you’ll understand this is worth an entry in the Guinness Book of Records.

Jess Lourey

Jess Lourey

As a “full-time” occupation, librarianship still holds her in its deadly thrall although she’s tempted to bid for the local franchise as a mortician. That is until she and Mrs Berns answer the call of a kitten mewling in an alley. Some people are just born suckers as Police Chief Gary Wohnt is quick to point out. Then there’s Kennie the town’s Mayor and her narcoleptic dog who’ve decided to branch out into plant healing. And finally, we get to the Winter Wonderland festivities (surprisingly, the town has a lake — can’t think how that happened) which Mira is to write about wearing her part-time journalist’s hat for the Battle Lake Recall (there will be questions asked at the end of this review to see how much you remember). To add to the celebrations, thanks to the work of Carter and Libby Stone, the Prospect House and Civil War Museum is formally to open its doors to the public. After this, everyone is due to jump on the lake with their boots on and skate to their heart’s content — yes, the ice really is that thick in Minnesota, particularly when the lake is on the shallow side. After a night’s consumption of alcoholic anaesthetic, brave townies then crack the ice and jump into the lake to prove their vital bits won’t drop off when exposed to water during the winter months. Except, as you would expect, everything has to be put on hold when Mira finds another body (which, unfortunately, albeit temporarily, includes a pullback from hot sex with Johnny). Fortunately, there’s always a Nut Goodie to ease sexual tensions, even the unwelcome ones.

This is another delightful conflation of murder, mystery and light-hearted banter as our intrepid investigator, ably assisted most of the time by her geriatric sidekick, sets off to untangle murder, drug trafficking and a cold case from the past. With the possible assistance of a previously unrecognised ghost, our dynamic duo make new friends, look after old ones when they get hurt, and practice their breaking and entering skills (not so much of a challenge when you know where the spare key is kept). The result solves the various cases in hand and advances the cause of justice across the generations. In the process, we see more of the town of Battle Lake and watch a new calmness replace our heroine’s uncertainty. Those of you following this excellent series will know she’s been not a little traumatised by events in the last few months and is distinctly twitchy about life — not even being prepared to risk sleeping on top of the bed in case the sky falls on her. But with mature words of wisdom from Mrs Berns and a new shoulder to cry on when a bereaved mother and two young children come into town, she manages to rediscover some of the gung-ho self-confidence that went missing from her life before Christmas. January Thaw therefore sees her beginning to emerge from the winter emotional cave where she’s been hunkering down. In the end, she’s charging into danger again like none of last year ever happened. This is good to see. The residents of Battle Lake were worried about her and we readers get to see a newly restored heroine ready to face the next month’s challenge, whatever that may be.

For reviews of other books by Jess Lourey, see:
December Dread
November Hunt
The Toad House Trilogy: Madmen.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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.

Jess Lourey by Jane Bailey

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.

For reviews of other books by Jess Lourey, see:
December Dread
November Hunt
The Toad House Trilogy: Madmen.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

November Hunt by Jess Lourey

February 1, 2012 Leave a comment

I’m only a few pages into this book and I feel a need to check out definitions. Naturally, I follow in the footsteps of our young folk and pick up my copy of the Oxford English. That kontiki thing set up by Heyerdahl and the great white wales was on strike recently. Who can trust such a fly-by-night site with something as vital as human knowledge? Anyways up (or down, if you prefer) I was curious to see what meaning is currently given to “genre”. It seems, despite the best efforts of the marketers to introduce certainty into the different classifications (otherwise how are we mere mortals to know what style of book we’re to buy), the word itself remains flexible. Indeed, those subversive dictionary folk think a book can simultaneously belong to several genres. Now that creates problems for those poor people in bookshops whose job it is to place books on the right shelf. Just think. Bookshops might have to buy multiple copies of the affected titles and place one or more copies on each genre shelf. That’s potentially good for the publisher’s business although more returns to handle.

So why get all excited, you ask. Well, November Hunt by Jess Lourey (Midnight Ink, 2012) is a humourous book about PIs with some romance mixed in. Disconcertingly, our heroine’s defences melt. Her bruised lips and ears come under attack. . . albeit it’s all described in the best possible taste. Now everyone and his dog knows PI novels are hardboiled with laconic and violent people slouching around the landscape doing noirish things to catch bad guys and, most importantly, never showing fear to anyone. They are not about young lady librarians who are afraid of thermostats and have strong hands on the small of their backs. Yet, that’s what we have here. The publishers have given their marketers and book shelvers a real headache with this one. It’s a wisecracking breath of fresh air into the normally stale back rooms where tough guys duke it out with crime bosses or their henchpersons. And, the air is certainly fresh in the sense of cold as we start off this story in the November snows of Battle Lake, Minnesota with what might look like a hunting accident to the local police. Except, of course, one of the deceased’s family harbours suspicions and needs a quiet investigation. Enter Mira James who, as a result of this commission, may finally be on her way to picking up that elusive PI licence.

Jess Lourey with her back to the wall

November Hunt is the seventh in the series featuring this investigator. She started off on May Day and is well on her way to December. Fortunately, she’s surrounded by opportunities to show off her crime-solving abilities while struggling to keep her head above water financially and hoping she’s found the right man for herself — on that front, she’s testing out the abstinence theory. It therefore makes a pleasant change to have someone relatively normal as the investigative wizard. Anyone who checks out PIing for Morons before starting off is my kind of person. Except, of course, like a doctor who finds strangers at parties asking for an immediate diagnosis and treatment, wannabe PIs can be offered unusual commissions, e.g. to find a lost mojo.

Putting this happy badinage to one side, books of this genre (sic) ultimately depend on the quality of the mystery to be solved. No matter how amusing or romantic in the touch-me-not-my name’s-temptation sense of the word, there must be real ingenuity in the puzzle to be solved. Equally important is the need for the author to play fair. Once the facts of the puzzle are established, we should be able to look over the heroine’s shoulder as she navigates from bafflement to that satisfying Eureka moment when all becomes clear. In this instance, there’s no clear indication there’s a murder to be solved. We simply set off on each day with half an eye on what people are saying or doing. In the process we discover a source of pot if we should ever be in the mood for a hit and that vitamins bought from the internet may have unintended side-effects. The interesting feature of this investigation is that we’re never directly interested in the first death itself — no rooting around the crime scene, if such it be. The death remains in the background as our PI grows increasingly proactive, inserting herself into various situations around town until she works out why someone might have wanted the man dead.

I think the motive that underpins the entire plot is particularly ingenious. It’s one of these “in plain sight” factors but, unless you were in that situation, it’s not something you would immediately think about. Sorry, I should personalise that. Being unlucky enough only to have a ten-watt light bulb for a brain, it didn’t occur to me. There’s a nice switch about identities in there too. The only vague feeling of dissatisfaction is the element of contrived melodrama at the end. I know it’s conventional to have our heroine metaphorically tied to a railway track as in the Perils of Pauline, but these deus ex machina resolutions leave me cold. I prefer my PI to type up her recipe for a whodunnit solution and post it to her editor before the deadline.

Put all this together and we have a genuinely enjoyable read. Yes, November Hunt blurs the genres but that’s no bad thing. Jess Lourey lets the spirit take her where it will. In the end, the test is whether a book is good or bad. In this case it’s excellent.

For reviews of other books by Jess Lourey, see:
December Dread
November Hunt
The Toad House Trilogy: Madmen.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Murder of the Bride by C S Challinor

January 27, 2012 Leave a comment

Murder of the Bride by C S Challinor (Midnight Ink Books, 2012) is inherently interesting on a number of counts. For books of this type to be regarded as a success, there must be an elegant mystery to solve. Preferably, clues should be lying about in plain sight so we can try to second-guess the detective. The experts or the lucky can then be triumphal. They’ve beaten the author at her own game. The rest of us lummoxes, can do the “aw shucks, why didn’t I think of that” routine when the reveal comes at the end. In this case, kudos to Ms Challinor who pivots neatly in the direction of her gaze before coming to the final explanation. I was my usual lummox self and failed to remember the finer points of our culture when it comes to naming people. This is a pleasing puzzle and, although the casual way the local doctor protects the confidentiality of his patients’ records is contrived, the investigation is credible and the author plays fair. Our series hero, lawyer and occasional detective Rex Graves, really does work it out on the basis of what he sees and hears.

So what’s it about? With brief introductions out of the way, we’re off to the wedding and a quick introduction to the potential killer(s) as the invitees gather at the church. Then we pile into the assortment of available cars and straggle past the pub to the local exercise in architectural vandalism with resulting deaths and the theft of some valuable nick-nacks. It’s a classic Golden Age situation with a reasonably closed number of suspects all milling around a wedding reception that’s spread over several “open” rooms with access to the rest of the building to anyone with the courage to walk upstairs or through unlocked doors. We then come to the second point of interest. All modern “detective” books must confront the problem of a nonprofessional inserting himself into an official investigation. In these modern times, the police on both sides of the Atlantic tend to be a little jealous of their role as the detectives, by default rejecting the help of well-meaning amateurs. Gone are the days of a Christie-style private detective acting as consultant to the incompetent authorities. Almost every modern “detective” must achieve success despite the opposition of the police. Since our hero is already present, is the first to suggest the cause of the problem when guests collapse, and is then left to his own devices with a lone inexperienced Police Constable on the premises, he can get a lot of the heavy-lifting done before a more senior officer arrives. He’s then conveniently recognised as having had success in the past (such is the price of fame) and is informally accepted as part of the team when he fairly quickly explains a part of the day’s events.

C S Challinor showing a fine head of hair

This gives him a licence to jump in a car (no problems with the alcohol level behind the wheel) and zoom down into the village to talk with key people and top up the alcohol level in the pub denied him before and after the church ceremony. The third point of interest is Ms Challinor observes the unity of time. Following on the European tradition which first really got started in the work of Racine, the action is continuous over a single day although, as to place, we do move around the village and its environs a little. This means our hero can get to the answer before officialdom shuts him out. On the subject of unity of place, I should mention a death at another location and a need to consider where steps might have been taken to make the murder(s) possible. But the point of view rigorously stays with Rex. Others report outside events to him and so they come within our consideration.

Finally, this is one of those books in which an American author who was educated in Britain, has chosen to base her series character in Scotland. From this auspicious location, Rex launches himself into investigations at various points around the UK, in Jacksonville and on one of the Caribbean islands. The authorial challenge is therefore to strike a balance between a necessary “Britishness” for many of the characters and the dictates of an essentially American reading audience. This is not simply about the spelling. Those who read with any kind of awareness tend to judge the success of any book on whether the creation of each character and mis-en-scène feels credible. For American readers, the author must supply just enough detail to match their stereotypes and prejudices. If there are to be British readers (of which I am one), some care must be taken not to unduly offend their sensibilities. At this point, I’m going to spend a moment being deeply unfair to the author. This is a book intended for the American market and an editor would quickly change details like ER to A&E for British publication. In this series, our Scottish barrister sleuth is on a roving commission to solve crimes in an array of destinations so it dilutes the language problem a little. He can say “och”, “verra” or something equally Scottish to remind us he’s got an accent and then carry on in standard English. Perhaps Ms Challinor should just have called him Hamish. Overall, the speech rhythms are good. I can “hear” English people talking like that. Now a few moans. In my pubby world, Guinness is not a beer, it’s a stout. But then, I’m eccentric and pedantic so all-comers can and should ignore what I say on the subject of ale. I was fascinated to find Rex’s lady, Helen, wearing a flannelette dressing gown in May. How practical of her. My grandmother used to wear flannelette. Finally, the idea of a well-off barrister, allegedly six foot four, folding himself into a Mini Cooper is remarkably down-market. Perhaps he doesn’t want to flaunt his higher status to other road users on his long and tiring commutes. With his income and at his age, he could afford something more comfortable for distance driving.

Putting these trivial points to one side, Murder of the Bride is a real success. The prose is lean and economical, the narrative structure is dynamic and the plot is ingenious. You can’t ask for more than that, no matter which side of the Atlantic you happen to prefer.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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