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Murder in the Afternoon by Frances Brody

Murder-in-the-Afternoon-A-Kate-Shackleton-Mystery--430049-d0669d01a1b3c5c38bce

When I was young, I was something of an expert on accents. In those days, it was possible to tell which local town or part of the city a person came from just by listening to the way he or she talked. The use of colloquialisms and dialect vocabulary was a giveaway. Sine my cousins lived in Wakefield and the relatively nearby Horbury, I also got the chance to listen to Yorkshire accents. I got to the point when I could reliably tell the difference between Yorkshire and Lancashire, but never refined it beyond that. Today, the pernicious influence of mass media has homogenized the way people speak. Although broad indicators remain to identify class and region, all the old certainties have gone. Some may say this is a good thing. Back in the 1950s, people were discriminated against based on their accents. Today’s discriminations are slightly less obvious in the way they operate.

Murder in the Afternoon by Frances Brody (a pseudonym of Frances McNeil) (Minotaur Books, 2014) is a British import to American shores. It’s set in the Yorkshire of 1923 and is the third to feature Kate Shackleton, a woman whose husband is missing presumed dead in World War I. She’s now making a living for herself as a private investigator—not an easy path to follow given the sexism of the era in which the majority of men think the woman’s place is in the home. A part of the interest in reading the prose is to “hear” the flat vowel sounds of many of the characters we meet. Although the book wisely refrains from excessive reproduction of some of the accented speaking we would have heard in the day, the rhythms of the prose are indelibly northern. Adding to the interest are some of the vocabulary choices. It’s good to see some of the older words coming back to life. Since I happen to be reading the American edition, I don’t think the British English should be a problem. It should always be obvious from the context what the words mean.

Frances Brody

Frances Brody

Putting the theme of discrimination behind us (spunky woman proving she’s just as capable as the men when it comes to work as a detective), the main theme of the book is the strength of relationships and the importance of families. Even though she considers herself a widow, she still clings to the idea of being married to her missing husband. It’s one of the reasons why she’s having to think very carefully about whether she wants to remarry. Another reason for hesitating is the current man’s refusal to relate to her as an equal. He’s Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Marcus Charles, a man who can take pride in the Yard’s attempts to recruit women to the force while patronisingly refusing to understand how much they might be able to contribute to the law enforcement function. As an aside, I should mention Kate was adopted at birth by a high-ranking Yorkshire police officer and his aristocratic wife. This is relevant for two reasons. Kate is able to trade on the family connection to persuade local people to talk to her. It also provides a model for what life might be like if she married Charles. Her adoptive mother is highly capable, but the only real excitement in her life comes when she makes a doubled contract at the bridge table. Kate fears she might be forced to leave Yorkshire and give up her own work to avoid any conflict of interest. It might be lonely and frustrating in London.

She’s woken by a desperate woman knocking at her door. She claims to be Kate’s sister and wants Kate to find her husband who’s gone missing. Although Kate has always known she was adopted, this is the first contact with her natural family and it somewhat unsettles her to discover she has a large, previously invisible, family. The book then charts the investigation. From the outset, ten-year-old Harriet insists she found her father dead in the quarry where he worked as a stone mason. But when the child returned with help, there was no sign of a body. Her story was dismissed as lies. The locals know the marriage was not on a happy basis and assume he’s run off. Complicating the scenario is the missing man’s politics and union activities. He’s been labelled a communist and there’s a Special Branch file open on him because there has been talk of him standing for Parliament as a Labour candidate. Locally, the man has also been in conflict with the local quarry operator and landowner. Many will be glad he’s gone.

So this is as much a personal journey into her past as it is a contemporary investigation. Kate must make necessary emotional adjustments as she first confirms the woman who appeared on her doorstep is her sister, and later when she meets her natural mother. The missing brother-in-law has, of course, been murdered so this ups the ante, particularly when the potential husband arrives from London to take charge of the case. The case is a direct parallel to her own experience. Her own husband’s body has never been identified. Now her sister’s husband has disappeared. When his body is later found, Kate feels more responsibility to track down his killer. The presence of Charles also forces her to confront her feelings about his patriarchal view of the world. Her decision as to whether to marry him has been postponed to the next book. Also left for future books is the relationship with the newly emerged family (which does prove to be more extensive than she first thought). There’s a lot left unresolved. The mystery itself is an interesting piece of misdirection which leaves the solution a reasonably plausible surprise. It had not been a scenario I had been thinking about although the facts are all there in plain sight. So both as a historical study of family life in the 1920s and as a murder mystery, Murder in the Afternoon proves a most satisfying read.

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

The Coal Black Asphalt Tomb by David Handler

The Cold Black Asphalt Tomb by David Handler

I’m starting off this review with thoughts about the relationship between historical fiction and the emerging subgenre which I’ll call Cold Case although, since the idea actually comes from Roy Vickers seminal collection, Department of Dead Ends (1949), we should perhaps find a better label. Anyway, the structure of this group of books has a contemporary detective investigate events which took place in the past. Vickers has a series detective called Rason who looks through old files until he finds something interesting. As in “The Man WHo Murdered in Public” where he puts together reports of deaths by drowning which my have a common denominator. The American television series Cold Case has Lilly Rush (Kathryn Morris) solve a murder a week which, after 156 episodes, grew somewhat monotonous. However, the essential question remains of how best to classify the format. Although we’re looking at older witnesses and suspects now, the primary focus is what happened way back when. We therefore get the best of both worlds by having events from the past acting as a catalyst for contemporary events (or maybe the other way round).

The Coal Black Asphalt Tomb by David Handler (Minotaur Books, 2014) is the tenth in the series featuring ex-film critic Mitch Berger from New York City and Connecticut State Resident Trooper Desiree Mitry. They currently cohabit in the small village of Dorset where he does various odd jobs while she keeps the peace. After many past attempts failed, the election of a new selectwoman brings the men and equipment to resurface the street through the Historical District. As they begin stripping off the old asphalt, they expose a body. It has been there forty-seven years. You can’t get a colder case than this and still have enough living suspects walking around.

David Handler

David Handler

The body belongs to a Navy flier called Lance Paffin whose younger brother has been the selectman opposing all attempts to resurface the road — if he did not know the body was buried there, why has he so adamantly opposed resurfacing? Among the other suspects are the elderly owner of the local newspaper, a US Congressman and a number of local women who, for these purposes, have the misfortune to live longer than men. They were all part of a group of bright young things who met at a party in the local hall in 1967. There was an argument which might have been about politics or about the shameless way Lance related to the female sex. The official records from the time showed everyone going home after the party apart from Lance who went out for a midnight sail in his boat. Later the boat was found on the shore. Lance’s body was never recovered and he was presumed dead. Given the body ended up buried outside the hall, there’s obviously been a major cover-up in place all these years. The questions we have to wrestle with are who might have been the killer and how many of the others conspired to conceal it.

Mitch is one of the conversationalists who disarms those he talks with. Once he gets stuck into the local gossip mill, the stories of the past come thick and fast. In fact, he’s almost too good at collecting different stories. Getting them all the fit together is a challenge. Meanwhile Desiree is caught up in a difficult political situation. The US Senator was obviously in on the cover-up because he gave a job to one of the detectives from the original investigation. This raises the stakes for the police department. If corrupt police officers botched the original investigation and a contemporary US Senator is involved, the media interest could be very damaging to reputations. Desiree is therefore under pressure to come up with quick answers to deflect blame.

One aspect of the plot is nicely obscure although it may be fairly obvious who must have been the killer. Whether this spoils your enjoyment really depends on why you read books like this. Those who switch off their brains and just enjoy the ride will find this book a delight. Some of the character we meet are fascinating and given enough space so we can watch their development from smooth purveyors of the cover story to embarrassed old folk shifting from foot to foot like naughty children caught out in a lie. Should you want to second-guess the series characters so you can claim bragging rights for having solved the case before they did, this book is also for you. It’s not that difficult to identify whodunnit. The uncertainty is more as to motive and opportunity. Going back to my opening salvo, this is more a contemporary mystery than historical fiction. Although the characters talk about their lives forty-seven years ago, it’s all seen through today’s lens. Some might see this as a cozy mystery in that we have a pair in a romantic relationship investigating crimes together in a small town. This just goes to show that once you start trying to attribute labels, it grows rather annoying. So let’s conclude with the good news that The Coal Black Asphalt Tomb is a distinctly above average murder mystery with minimal police procedure thrown in to add political realism.

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

Heirs of the Body by Carola Dunn

February 23, 2014 Leave a comment

HEIRS OF THE BODY by Carola Dunn

Heirs of the Body by Carola Dunn (Minotaur Books, 2013) is the twenty-first in the series featuring (The Honourable) Daisy Dalrymple (Fletcher) and has us firmly back in historical times all wrapped up warm in what approaches the status of a cozy mystery. As to era, we’re firmly located in the Britain of the 1920s in which wealth and privilege were still hanging on by their fingernails. Thematically, we’re caught up in the problems of the primogeniture rule for succession to a title. In the days before the suffragette movement was alarming the horses on race courses and straining conversations over tea in country houses, titles passed down the male line. In the best regulated families, husbands would bear down on their wives on a regular basis and, in due course, lots of little heirs would populate the nurseries, thereby ensuring a smooth transition of the title and the lands entailed with it. Except not all households were successful with problems of fertility, lack of interest in sex, or worse, the production of female offspring only, blighting succession. It was at this point that lawyers with an interest in genealogy came into their own, delving into dusty records in colonies and other less likely places around the world, to find the nearest male relative who might be elevated to the ranks of the nobility. In this case, the current Lord Dalrymple has reached the age of fifty and, having spent his life in pursuit of butterflies and moths, decides the chances of catching an heir are remote. He therefore sets the wheels in motion to find the male with the best claim to the title and the estate that goes with it.

Meanwhile Daisy continues in domestic bliss with her husband who, breaking the cozy rules, is a senior police officer at the old Scotland Yard. This gives our heroine the perfect excuse to get involved in all the more interesting cases falling into her husband’s care. Indeed, she’s been at this so long, not only the younger officers but also the more senior officers of London’s finest are aware of her ability to make pertinent suggestions on whodunnit. This time, the family solicitor comes up with a list of four possible claimant to the title. They are an unpleasant South African who appears to be moderately wealthy thanks to his trade as a diamond merchant, a British man and his French wife who run a hotel in Scarborough, a mixed-race boy from Trinidad, and a Jamaican sailor — his pregnant wife comes to England to protect his claim since no-one is entirely sure where he is.

Carola Dunn

Carola Dunn

This starts well. There’s a very nice sense of the style and manners of the time with the stratification of social class ringing true. The interest is maintained as we begin the search for the heirs and first impressions as the early claimants appear are auspicious. Unfortunately, the central section loses it way. In part, this is a direct result from plot choices. In the classical detective story, we reestablish our core of series characters, meet the newcomers for this book and, usually no later than one third of the way through the book, the first body appears. This gives our heroine plenty of time to flex her mental muscles, decide what to wear for dinner, and solve the case in the library over a snifter or two. But this case is about succession. One of the claimants must think he has a poor chance of meeting the criteria for being the first male heir and so decides to eliminate the competition. The most amusing version of this trope is Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) in which the predatory Louis Mazzini works his way through the ranks of the D’Ascoynes.

Allowing for the film being somewhat over the top, this is completely free of tension as there are reports of “accidents”, or we see the donkey race to disaster, or the butterfly net of doom almost strikes. When we do get to a death, it appears to be natural causes. Although once you put it in context, it does look suspicious. Of course it heats up again as we come into the final bend but the feeling as we cross the line is that the criminal(s) is/are remarkably amateurish — this is just too cozy with very little of the killer mentality we associate with the British nobility. Having taken the decision to eliminate the competition, you would expect the villain(s) to be better organised and leave nothing to chance. Indeed, continuing in the ineptitude stakes, the professional police officer who married into this clan of noble eccentrics comes out of this book looking less than effective. Although we’re not supposed to blame him — he’s distracted — his failure to examine the key evidence is woeful. Perhaps he’s more on the ball in earlier books.

So Heirs of the Body ends up slightly ho-hum. It promises more than it delivers on the mystery front, once the evidence comes in, the question of the heir’s identity is easy to see, and the historical background is impeccable. So if all you want is a gentle outing into the lives of one of the larger British aristocratic families of the latter part of 1920s, this is the book for you. Presumably if you’ve already read the twenty books preceding this, you’ll want this if only to see what happens on the family front.

For reviews of other books by Carola Dunn, see A Colourful Death and The Valley of the Shadow.

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

NYPD Puzzle by Parnell Hall

February 20, 2014 Leave a comment

NYPD Puzzle by Parnell Hall

NYPD Puzzle by Parnell Hall (Minotaur Books, 2014) is the fifteenth Puzzle Lady Mysteries featuring Cora Felton. If you’ve read the previous fourteen, this is more of the same and you’ll no doubt pick this up, charge through it, and emerge satisfied at the end. For those of you coming to the series for the first time, the structure of the book is very accessible so there’s no difficulty in reading this cold. People who like cozy mysteries will no doubt love this. From this introduction, you’ll detect I have a certain degree of ambivalence about it.

Welcome to small town America, Bakerhaven to be precise, in which a cast of regular characters know each other and, in appropriate circumstances, help each other out. It all depends on Cora Felton. She’s of a certain age, is the face used to advertise breakfast fodder for kids, and consolidates her fame or notoriety by being known as the Puzzle Lady, i.e. she’s launched hundreds of crosswords, sudoku and other puzzles on to the unsuspecting world. Except, of course, she’s a fraud — but in the nicest sense of the word. Although she’s got a real head for numbers, and creates and solves sudoku in her sleep, she has no aptitude for crosswords. The reason for the deception is to provide a source of income for her niece Sherry. When she was on the run from her abusive husband, Cora gave her a place to stay. Sherry earns her living creating the crosswords which the Puzzle Lady markets to those who like puzzles. Indeed, this book has crosswords and sudoku puzzles embedded in the text. Solving them gives vital clues (for those of you with no skill or aptitude in puzzle-solving, the solutions are given on the next page).

Parnell Hall finding a good use for his left hand

Parnell Hall finding a good use for his left hand

This time around, someone has broken into the town hall, but there’s no sign anything is missing. Next Cora’s attorney friend is invited to nearby New York to meet with a client for the first time. Instead of going to this man’s office, she’s invited to his penthouse. Out of an abundance of caution. Cora goes along as bodyguard. Needless to say, they come out of the lift, push open the door and find a dead body with a crossword puzzle pinned to its chest. A noise alerts them to the presence of someone in another room so Cora takes out her gun (yes she packs heat) and seconds later is shooting at a safecracker as he jumps out of the window. This leaves her in a tricky situation because the bullet currently residing inside the dead man’s head is too badly damaged to produce reliable markings. Cora’s bullet followed the burglar out through the open window, so the NYPD is not a million miles from having one of these neat circumstantial cases to show Cora as the killer. Except why would a sudoku puzzle also appear? This question joins a growing list of the unanswerable? Why do people break into small-town town halls and take nothing? Why do people later kill the town clerk with a blunt instrument. How come someone can incorporate a car’s licence plate number in the first sudoku puzzle and then use a car with those plates to follow Cora? and so on.

The accumulation of questions without answers grows somewhat frustrating both for the characters and the readers. So much happens which obviously must have some explanation, but the who and the why of it remain stubbornly elusive. Now we add in the element you will either find endearing or somewhat annoying. Cora’s last relationship has ended somewhat abruptly and she’s feeling a little fragile. Even during the best of times, she’s prone to engage in what one might call “banter”. In earlier books this is moderately friendly and reasonably humorous. This time round, she’s more barbed and, at times, the characters talk at each other rather than with each other. After a while, I found this grew tiresome. You can forgive much when people are feeling vulnerable, but this got out of hand.

So NYPD Puzzle is not as successful as the last in the series. The mystery is not something Cora and her cohorts solve. Rather they have to wait until it’s explained to them at the end. So instead of producing a ta-da whodunnit moment at the end, it fizzles out as the killer(s) is/are taken into custody. Shame really. With hindsight, the plot is ingenious but it never quite engages as the characters go through the necessary gyrations to find out who’s doing what to whom and why.

For a review of the previous book in the series, see Arsenic and Old Puzzles.

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

Murder and Moonshine by Carol Miller

February 11, 2014 Leave a comment

Murder-and-Moonshine-A-Mystery-416948-3d2bd95f279b0f78a91e

Murder and Moonshine by Carol Miller (Minotaur, 2013) starts me off on a not-quite-rant about what I consider to be lazy plotting. Here we have a spunky young woman who got married but her husband done gone and run off for who knows what reason. This leaves our hero somewhat in an emotional and financial mess. To add to her woes, her daddy and daddy-in-law died — in the early stages of the book, no-one quite gets around to explaining how they died — and her mommy is not in the best physical and intellectual state. So as the book gets underway, we meet Daisy Hale McGovern who makes the best peach cobbler “between Charleston, West Virginia, and Charleston, South Carolina.” For the record, our cobbler-maker is a denizen of Glade Hill, which is a spot on the map of Southwestern Virginia rather than a real town with streets and folk who tip their hats to eat other as they pass all sociable-like on the sidewalks. No, this is a one-horse piece of countryside in which natives barely rising above the level of characters from Deliverance (1972) make moonshine and believe it’s better to shoot first and never ask questions about who or what they hit.

Daisy works in the diner established by her father and a partner. One day, she’s fending off Rick and Bobby Balsam when in staggers Fred Dickerson. He expires on the floor before he can do more than order a burger. This disrupts the smooth-running of this food emporium as ambulance and police (husband and wife team in this backwoods area) descend (not from the trees, you understand). EMT wife pronounces the death suspicious — usually people only die after eating the food in this diner — which brings in the forensic team from the nearest outpost of civilisation. As and when the autopsy report gets kicked upstairs, ATF Special Agent Ethan Kinney arrives looking for places he can’t find on his map.

Carol Miller

Carol Miller

So here comes my problem. In all the time since the double daddy death scenario, Daisy has never been back to the scene of their deaths. It’s all too painful. This hasn’t stopped the local gossip mill from deconstructing events and deciding who was to blame. Yet no-one seems to have shared this speculation with our hero before the book starts. She’s been living in a southern version of limbo waiting for a hunky AFT agent to arrive so she can do her “should I overcome my prejudices and admit I like the local darkly handsome Rick Balsam, or should I fall into the arms of this despicable version of humanity from the AFT (spits copiously on to the ground)?” How does this plot point come to the fore? Well the first thing AFT asks her to do is take him to the place where her daddies died, and who does she meet there but Rick drinking the deceased’s shine. There’s macho posturing and gun waving to prove they both have balls and not a lick of sense. And we still don’t know how our hero’s two daddies died and we’re halfway through the book. How can she have had absolutely no curiosity about this loss in her life? How come no-one took her to one side and told her what was happening? It’s completely ludicrous particularly because we’re now supposed to see her as an investigator cum sleuth who can crack all mysteries and solve all problems.

Grudgingly, I’ll admit the plot proves to have a slight surprise in the reason for all this mayhem. It’s amusingly cultural as “big business” meets hillbilly sensibilities in a region not properly serviced by cellphone towers or even properly mapped. However, the whole book is rather tiresome with the mandatory lurch into thriller territory with guns blazing and explosions going “bang” or something similar. There’s no mystery to solve. In true thriller style, the bad guy just waltzes into view and orders our hero’s death. You can’t get a more perfunctory whodunnit solution than that. So Murder and Moonshine proves pretty dire and not at all the kind of book you want to curl up with the next time you have a hankering for white lightning or one of the other more potent distilled products.

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

The Séance Society by Michael Nethercott

January 21, 2014 Leave a comment

The Séance Society by Michael Nethercott

The Séance Society by Michael Nethercott (Minotaur, 2013) offers us a genuinely intriguing set-up but, somehow, the execution doesn’t quite carry the same level of excitement through the rest of the book. We’re in historical mystery land with a trip back to 1956. Actually, I should be somewhat offended the publishers now call the 1950s “historical” like William the Conqueror just got off the boat and shot Harold in the eye, but I suppose these publishing houses are now run by the equivalent of my grandchildren and should be forgiven for having no perspective. That said, it’s 1956 and we find ourselves in Thelmont, Connecticut with youngish, thirtysomething Lee Plunkett. This version of small town America does resonate with my experience on the other side of the Atlantic. The pace of the world was slower, horizons were limited to the immediate geographical area, and the culture was repressive — some things don’t change. The outstanding feature of the book is the backstory of young Plunkett, Buster his father, and the gang of cronies who surrounded Buster and were so dismissive of number 1 son.

Despite the significant differences in temperament, Lee joins his father in the PI business in 1954. Truth be told, the son has little talent but his father’s business is not breaking world records in profitability. They make enough to get by and the fact Lee gets his licence gives him legitimacy in the local community (if not among Buster’s cronies). When Buster dies of a heart attack in 1955, this leaves Lee floating aimlessly until he’s taken in hand by Irish expat Mr. O’Nelligan — he who came to the US in 1944 with his wife and never looked back. So there we have our Holmes and his not very bright Watson who boasts a “perpetual fiancée” called Audrey. No doubt later in the series, they will marry but, for now, they live separately and kiss chastely as was the custom for those who were then walking out.

Michael Nethercott CREDIT: Helen Schepartz

Michael Nethercott
CREDIT: Helen Schepartz

In due course, they are employed by a police detective who’s close to retirement. He’s very unhappy with the circumstances surrounding the death of Trexler Lloyd, a rich and somewhat eccentric inventor who had been bitten by the spiritualism bug. He had called a small gathering at his home in Braywick to demonstrate his new machine called the “Spectricator”, a device that would enable him to speak with the dead. Unfortunately, when he was attached to this machine, he seems to have been electrocuted — at least that was the diagnosis of the county coroner who happened to be one of the invited guests. Minutes after the body is seen by our police officer and his young partner, it was whisked off to the local crematorium. A few hours later, the urn of ash returned to the house. Some would say that was excessive efficiency. All the money passes under the will to his wife, Spanish beauty Constanza. The house goes to the Swiss groundsman, and there are smaller financial bequests to the flock of hangers on and servants. With the coroner present when death occurred and pronouncing it accidental, local police have no interest in pursuing the investigation. Hence our dynamic duo are to be employed to poke around and see what they can find out.

This book had the potential to be either very amusing or sharply satirical. We have the extraordinarily bad-tempered C.R. Kemple who has a reputation for communing with spirits from other dimensions and producing spectacular if somewhat obscure results. Then there’s Sassafras Miller who was a somewhat notorious woman, but is now redeemed and working for Trexler. Just taking these two characters could give us the opportunity for great fun, but the results are somewhat po-faced. Indeed, the whole book takes itself far too seriously with the elderly Mr. O’Nelligan speaking in a very mannered style with frequent verbal digressions and quotes from Yeats and other poets. As to our narrator: he’s one of these slightly downtrodden young men who find themselves on the receiving end of parental abuse and so fail to develop any strong personality of their own. There are vague signs of an ability to analyse and organise information, but he’s never going to be able to match the intellectual vigour of the older man.

I’m not denying the ingenuity of the puzzle the pair is given to solve, with the series of revelations nicely timed to give us the necessary twists and turns through the plot. Indeed, the fact one aspect of the murder is obvious does not detract from the one character feature I had not counted on to pinpoint exactly when things in Trexler’s world took a turn for the worse. That part of the customary gathering of all the suspects at the end for drinkies and revelations is amusingly apposite. But for all the elegant plotting the book fails to strike the right tone and so, sadly, The Séance Society ends up only average fare in the historical mystery stakes.

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

Taken by the Wind by Ellen Hart

January 17, 2014 Leave a comment

taken_by_the_wind- 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.

Ellen Hart keeping a close eye on things

Ellen Hart keeping a close eye on things

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.

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