Cozy Catch Up

Murder, Curlers & Kilts, the fifth installment in Arlene McFarlane’s charming Valentine Beaumont series, finds Valentine attending Rueland’s annual Multi-Cultural Festival. One of this year’s big attractions is a caber toss—or is it the participating men in kilts? When a kilt-clad body pops out of the pond in the middle of the park, Valentine is on the trail.

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Helped or hindered by the usual gang of beauty specialists (Valentine’s salon employees Max, Jock, and Phyllis, not to mention her arch-rival Candace), Valentine works her way through a long list of possible suspects while trying to stay under the radar of Detective Romero. In true Valentine fashion, she finds herself hanging on for dear life as she pursues the killer onto a Ferris Wheel.

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And—biggest question of all—is it true what they say about men wearing kilts? Well, Valentine may just have a chance to find out.

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Lowcountry Boondoggle is Susan M. Boyer’s ninth Liz Talbot mystery, and once again the city of Charleston and the South Carolina barrier islands are a fascinating part of the story. This time around, Liz and her husband/partner are drawn into a case by a former client, Darius Baker (Lowcountry Boomerang), whose recently-discovered son, Brantley, has become involved in a hemp farming operation. Nothing wrong with that, until the uncle of one of Brantley’s two partners is murdered and his house destroyed in a gas explosion.

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Was the hemp operation involved? The uncle, a university professor, had declined to invest. What about all those women who showed up at the professor’s funeral? Or the cloud over Brantley’s head—could he have set the fire that killed his adoptive family? And then there were two of the professor’s students, possibly involved in something shady. Not only are there plenty of suspects, the suspects are suspicious of one another.

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Lowcountry Boondoggle is another wild ride for Liz and Nate, not to mention the continuing adventures of Liz’s family, what with her father’s over-the-top Halloween yard decor and a couple of surprises from her brother Blake. I’ve enjoyed this series from the beginning, and this installment did not let me down.

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Killer Queen is the latest (and eleventh) installment in Julie Mulhern’s Country Club Mystery series, and it’s just as good as its predecessors. Ellison finds another body—in her own house. Worse, the dead woman had introduced herself to housekeeper Aggie as Mrs. Anarchy Jones. Since Anarchy has no Mrs, not even an ex, it takes a while to figure out who the dead woman is, as well as her connection to Kansas City country club society. But of course there is one. In fact there are so many connections that Ellison can’t find one suspect who had motive, means, and opportunity at the same time.

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Ellison’s supporting cast is here—her daughter Grace, her friends Libba and Jinx and the rest of the bridge-playing gals, and her parents. And—terrifying—Anarchy’s mother. Kansas City in the early 70s, when computers and cell phones dominated no one’s life, also plays its part.

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I love this series. Next one arrives in February—I’ll be waiting.

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The Luck Runs Out is the second installment in Charlotte MacLeod’s Peter Shandy mystery series. Things are definitely going wrong at Balaclava Agricultural College after someone turns the horseshoes hanging in the barn to the unlucky position. A robbery, a murder, and the pignapping of Belinda of Balaclava, a very large, very pregnant porker. Are any of these connected? It falls to Peter, with help from his new wife Helen and the towering president of the college, Thjorkeld Svenson, to untangle the mysteries.

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I read this series back in the 70s and I’m enjoying its resurrection in ebook form. Kudos to Open Road and Mysterious Press for rescuing so many older mysteries. But this one, I have to say, is riddled with typos, superfluous commas, and missing periods. I suspect that someone had the original book (probably an old paperback) scanned and formatted, without taking the essential middle step of proofreading the scanner output. If you can tolerate that, you’ll enjoy the story.

Two Books

Here are two totally unrelated and hard-to-categorize books that I’ve enjoyed. As you might expect if you visit here often, both include a good bit of humor—of wildly different types.

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Highfire, by Eoin Colfer, is a wild combination of fantasy and over-the-top antic crime fiction. Wyvern, Lord Highfire, possibly the last dragon on Earth, lives under the radar in the Louisiana swamp country, drinking vodka, watching Netflix, training alligators, and generally ignoring the world, until a fifteen-year-old Cajun kid called Squib falls into Vern’s domain after witnessing a crime committed by the crooked constable who has the hots for Squib’s mother. And it just gets crazier from there.

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I picked it up because it sounded funny, and it is, but it’s also quite violent. Colfer is known for his Artemis Fowl fantasy series for young readers, but Highfire is definitely not for kids. It reads more like what might have resulted if Dave Barry or Carl Hiaasen headed north to Louisiana and fell into some parallel universe. I was halfway through the book before I discovered that Colfer is Irish. How he nailed Louisiana (where I lived for several years) so well is a mystery to me.

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Overall I enjoyed Highfire, although it took me a couple of weeks to read. I liked Vern, a fairly humanoid dragon who stands about seven feet tall and dresses in Flashdance tee shirts and cargo shorts. He gradually warms to his young sidekick (rather than incinerating him, his first impulse) and puts him to work running his supplies of vodka and fuel oil up the Bayou. The villain, Regence Hooke, is totally despicable, but a worthy opponent for Vern. Squib, enthusiastic, accident prone, and just the right age to fall in with a dragon, is a charming hero.

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Jennifer Weiner’s latest novel, Big Summer, is set largely in the world of Instagram, Twitter, hashtags and “influencers,” a world that is totally foreign to me. It still is—I want no part of living obsessively on line. Nevertheless, I enjoyed Big Summer immensely, reading most of it on one Sunday.

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Daphne Berg has become a plus-size influencer (well, her gig as a part time nanny actually pays most of the bills) since a video of her standing up to a rude man in a night club went viral. Since then she’s made great strides in accepting herself and encouraging others; in fact she’s just landed a gig as the face and figure of a new clothing line.

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Daphne’s life takes an unexpected turn when her high school frenemy, Drue Cavanaugh, pops back into her life. Daphne resists even seeing Drue—it’s been years, ever since the night of that video. Drue had a hand in setting Daphne up with the guy (“we felt sorry for you”), and Daphne remembers all too clearly how often Drue hurt her, insulted her or dumped her. But Drue is one of the charismatic people, so hard to resist, and when she begs Daphne to be in her high society wedding on Cape Cod, Daphne relents. After all, it will be a great opportunity to post pictures of her sponsors’ clothes and products. And maybe Drue has really changed.

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Big Summer starts out as a women’s fiction, but about halfway through it takes a sharp turn into mystery territory. Daphne finds herself juggling the roles of suspect and investigator. With help from two friends and her parents, she rises to the occasion, uncovering secret after secret about Drue and her apparently perfect life and world. Along the way she realizes that the friend she envied in high school may have had good reason to envy her.

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Daphne Berg is a likable and relatable heroine, and it’s a pleasure to travel with her as she navigates the on line world and the real world, body image, female friendship, and even a romance.

Catching Up With Nero Wolfe

Murder, Stage Left is Robert Goldsborough’s twelfth entry in Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series. Judging by Wolfe’s current reading (Vance Packard’s The Status Seekers and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring), this one is set around 1963. (Goldsborough jumped forward into the computer age for a few books, but has since returned to a more Wolfean era—the books can be read in any order.)

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In Murder, Stage Left, the mystery revolves around a Broadway production, and finds Archie posing as a writer for a non-existent Canadian theater magazine to interview the members of the cast. This backfires when the director is murdered and Archie’s now-vanished alter ego becomes a suspect. Since the cast knows Archie as “Alan MacGregor,” Saul Panzer steps in to help with the investigation while Archie watches from the wings. The mystery follows the format of all the Wolfe tales, and the dialog occasionally reminded me of Damon Runyon, but as always I enjoyed the novel and Goldsborough’s continuation of Rex Stout’s series.

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Still in the 1960s, The Battered Badge finds Wolfe and Goodwin in the unusual position of coming to the aid of Inspector Cramer, the cigar-chewing homicide detective who maintains a semi-adversarial role throughout the series. This time, however, Cramer finds himself relieved of duty and replaced as head of the homicide squad by George Rowcliff, a detective who Wolfe really doesn’t like. The specter of dealing with Rowcliff in the future so discomfits Wolfe that he takes on investigating the murder that seems to have derailed Cramer’s career.

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As much fun as it was to see Cramer squirm a bit, and even more to see him collaborating (at arm’s length, but still) with Wolfe and Goodwin, the mystery itself fell a little flat. A couple of characters changed their minds on important issues simply because Wolfe told them to (pointing out the errors in their thinking), and the ending was a bit rushed (although it did see Wolfe leave the brownstone, riding white-knuckled in the rear seat as Archie drove). But these books are fun even if they don’t always hit all the high notes.

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Proving that the time line is the least of Goldsborough’s concerns, Death of an Art Collector is set in the late 50s (Frank Lloyd Wright, who died in 1959, makes a brief, and notably arrogant, appearance, and the opening of the Wright-designed Guggenheim Museum figures in the plot). The mystery in this one doesn’t run deep, and it’s almost a toss-up as to whether Wolfe solves it or it solves itself, but I continue to enjoy Goldsborough’s handling of Archie and Wolfe, Wolfe’s books of the moment (The Ugly American, for one), and Fritz’s amazing menus.

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Mr. Goldsborough turns 83 this year, but he has a new book out, Archie Goes Home. Good for him, and inspiration for us all.

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