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Hit and Run by Sandra Balzo

June 9, 2014 2 comments

Hit and Run by Sandra Balzo

Hit and Run by Sandra Balzo (Severn House, 2014) is the third Main Street Mystery and sees AnnaLise Griggs hired to do a biography of Dickens Hart. Back in the 1970s, he achieved some degree of notoriety by opening the White Tail Lodge, a copy of the Playboy concept with scantily clad women waiting tables for the edification of the male (club) members. He has records and diaries. She’s to edit them into a coherent story of his experiences. That he also happens to be her biological father came as a surprise, but she’s adjusting to the idea, particularly as it helps pay her bills. As part of this foray into the past, Dickens wants to track down all the women he has slept with (at least sixty-three before the cut) and any children he might have sired. There’s a plan to remember his children in the will. Yet bringing everyone together over Thanksgiving may be a little dangerous. So the invitations are limited to just those three women who might have produced his children, those children, and assorted ex-wives.

We’re then briefly back in the small town of Sutherton in the High Country of North Carolina to catch up with the extended family of Daisy Griggs and her best friend Phyllis ‘Mama’ Balisteri, before heading back for the Thanksgiving from Hell. Think of it this way. We have a relatively isolated house with a limited number of people to create the Golden Age situation. The invitees are all actual or potential gold-diggers, with a few ex-wives thrown in for good measure, a lawyer, and AnnaLise taking the moral high road, claiming she don’t want none of her natural father’s money. Except, early on in the holiday, she discovers one of the two women she relates to as her mother has run up major medical bills ($83,000 to be precise). Although AnnaLise has been paid half her fee for writing the biography up front, the $50,000 in hand is going to be swallowed up. Ironically, she discovers she may actually not want to share Dickens’ estate with anyone else if Daisy Griggs is really ill. So we get through the first day and early the next morning, the Chef has disappeared and the inevitable body is discovered. Predictably, Dickens is found naked on his bed with the back of his head smashed in by the bottle shown on the jacket artwork.

Sandra Balzo

Sandra Balzo

This gives us the classic murder mystery scenario with almost everyone in residence having a motive for wanting the old man dead. The plot is meticulously put together but I confess to finding it slightly difficult to relate to the geography of the house itself. Since a part of the solution depends on where everyone is, who can see what from where, and where corridors and doors lead to, a floor plan might have been useful. Although I concede that since the journalist as sleuth only discovers some features of the house quite late on in the book, having a plan might enable us readers to pre-empt the solution of the crime. That may be a bad thing. I’m not sure.

I’m also not sure the plot is dynamic enough. Without some of the humour on display in other books she has written to carry us through, I felt this narrative lost pace coming up to the midway point. It does slowly pick up again as AnnaLise naturally comes under suspicion. Since she’s the only proven heir at this point, she would have a motive for killing her natural father before he can change the will to include any other offspring. In the end, the solution to the murder proves rather tragic. There’s a certain quite pleasing malevolence about the plan and, when events don’t quite work out as expected, the cover-up of whodunnit is ingenious. That means I give top marks for the plot in hindsight, but think Hit and Run would have been better if some of the detail had been pruned and a little humour had been injected into the proceedings.

For the review of another book by Sandra Balzo, see Murder on the Orient Espresso.

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

Murder on the Orient Espresso by Sandra Balzo

September 25, 2013 1 comment

Murder on the Orient Espresso by Sandra Balzo

Murder on the Orient Espresso by Sandra Balzo (Severn House, 2013) is the eighth Maggy Thorsen Mystery and it invites us to consider the most desirable characteristics for that perfect cup of coffee (those of you blessed with a suspicious turn of mind will understand the seven previous titles are all relevant puns). The series in general and this book in particular, all begin with the aroma which alerts the other senses something good is on the way. Then we get to the body, i.e. the feeling the coffee has in your mouth or, if you prefer, Maggy Thorsen together with Brookhills County Sheriff Jake Pavlik with a murder victim on their hands. As the process of consumption begins, there must be elements of viscosity as the thick liquid lingers indulgently on the tongue before disappearing into the pit below for absorption into the gut. This delightful sensation stems from the solids produced by grinding and the oils extracted during the brewing leading us to conclude the best coffee, like the best novels, has a balance between sweetness and acidity, producing a rich and complex flavour.

 

Sandra Balzo has injected lightness into the milk to produce a frothy brew with a sprinkling of wit, humour and a little absurdity to create a slightly nutty aftertaste, the whole concoction leaving me in a mellow and satisfied mood. The aroma builds as we join Maggie and Jake booking into the hotel where the crime writers convention is to be held. The sly observations introduce us to the first evening’s event which is a short train journey in the spirit of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. We meet everyone of note on the bus to the station with their real-world names nicely alliterative to the characters from the novel so we don’t forget who everyone is. Then it’s off into the Everglades in a push-me, pull-you train where alien invaders eat the ‘gators or eat the food the ‘gators would eat before the reptiles can get at them — actually that’s confusing because the aliens are Burmese and African Rock pythons released into the wilds by pet owners who couldn’t cope with the little monsters which were becoming alarmingly big.

Sandra Balzo

Sandra Balzo

 

With the train leaving the station, we’re off on what should be a three-hour jaunt into the wilderness with the prospect of a murder to solve before the victorious sleuths are allowed to eat the celebratory cake. Except, as is required in books like this which depend on crimes for our heroic detectives to solve, there’s a real life murder with the cake knife — presenting a real challenge to those who wish to eat the cake but have nothing to cut it with save the sharpness of their wit. Such are the perils of those who organise events or conferences for creative people where petty jealousies and major disagreements combine to produce a hopefully only metaphorically murderous atmosphere.

 

This being a rerun of the Agatha Christie situation of a small group of people trapped on a train, the problem for the author is to decide how rigorously to follow the plot of the original. In this case, there’s a very nice balance with most of the people on the train having a motive for wanting this particular individual dead (so they all did it, right?) while there are wildly inventive moments that completely undercut the spirit of the original. It’s so artfully done: the fact the detective duo might debate whether to call the witnesses into the dining car for interview in the same order as in the novel, simply typifying the delightfully elaborate game being played — like trying to work out how far along the track they are. The other pleasing demonstration of good judgement is understanding the need to keep extended jokes short. Although we pivot rather neatly into a faintly absurd thriller ending, the explanation of whodunnit and why is clear and persuasive. Then it’s all over bar the shouting to the barista for more of the same.

 

For the review of another book by Sandra Balzo, see Hit and Run.

 

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

 

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