And More Mysteries

I came back from RWA 2017 last week with a small stack of new romance novels (only eight this year, which is pretty conservative for a conference where free books practically fly into one’s tote bag—and picture 2000 women with identical green and blue tote bags!). I even bought three of them at the Literacy Signing (where RWA raised over $44,000 for literacy organizations).

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I’ll get to those books, and the several new downloads on my Kindle, sooner or later, but in the meantime, here are a few more mysteries. (The biggest mystery remains: when do I think I’m going to read all the books I collect?).

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The Great Detectives: The World’s Most Celebrated Sleuths Unmasked by Their Authors, edited by Otto Penzler, was first published back in the 1970s, so the detectives profiled date back to the early to mid twentieth century. Back in my voracious mystery reader days (how did I ever have that much time for reading?), I ran through the adventures some of these detectives: Roderick Alleyn (by Ngaio Marsh), Lew Archer (by Ross MacDonald), Jose da Silva (by Robert Fish), Nancy Drew (by Carolyn Keene), the 87th Precinct (by Ed McBain), Luis Mendoza (by Dell Shannon), and Mr. and Mrs, North (by Frances & Richard Lockridge), and I at least recognize most of the others (including the Shadow and Dick Tracy).

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The authors’ essays range from biographies of their characters to interviews with the detectives (a technique many authors favor) to discussions of how these fictional people were created (some well planned in advance, some appearing on the page with no warning). For me, those peeks into the minds of those writers was the most interesting part of the book.

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I know some Rex Stout/Nero Wolfe purists are not thrilled with Robert Goldsborough’s continuation of the series, but I’ve been enjoying his efforts. The Last Coincidence was published in 1989, and, although the characters have not aged over several decades, they are now living in the late twentieth century, and Archie is keeping the orchid records and doing other office tasks on a computer. His relationship with long-time lady friend Lily Rowan gets a bit more attention, too, although Archie remains a gentleman and never goes into detail.

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The Last CoincidenceIn this installment, Wolfe and Archie investigate the murder of a young man who assaulted Lily’s niece. For a moment even Archie might be a suspect, but attention soon turns to a collection of Lily’s relatives and their friends. The novel ends, as Wolfe’s cases often do, with all the suspects gathered in Wolfe’s office, as the great detective drinks beer and explains all.

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Many years ago, when I was a book-a-day reader, I barreled through all the Nero Wolfe novels. I’ve picked up and enjoyed a few of those more recently, but I’m also happy to see the cases continue. I’ve managed to accumulate all of Goldsborough’s entries on my Kindle—now I just need more reading time.

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Watching the DetectivesWatching the Detectives is the fifth entry in Julie Mulhern’s Country Club Murders series, Set in Kansas City in 1974, in that bygone era before computers, the Internet, and cell phones changed our lives. Ellison Russell has developed a remarkable talent for discovering bodies, sometimes in her own house, while juggling her teenage daughter Grace, her overbearing mother, and two attractive men, police detective Anarchy Jones and attorney Hunter Tafft. This time around, Ellison discovers an interior decorator whose life is as much a mystery as her death, contributes to a luncheon without finding out who the guest speaker is, and delves into some dark domestic secrets. Excellent as always. I’ve just preordered the next book in the series, Cold As Ice, available in October.

Mystery Roundup

I seem to be reading a lot of cozy mysteries lately (when I’m not solving logic problems on my new tablet and telling myself it’s good mental exercise). Here are the three latest offerings in series I enjoy a lot.

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Ivy Get Your GunIvy Get Your Gun is the fourth installment in Cindy Brown’s mystery series set in and around Phoenix and featuring Ivy Meadows (nee Olive Ziegwart), a working actress who moonlights with her private investigator uncle to make ends meet. But it’s one of her theatrical friends who asks her to check out the situation at a newly opened Wild West tourist attraction, where she finds herself in a two-actor, four-character melodrama, and in the middle of trouble. Meanwhile, she’s auditioning for the lead in Annie Get Your Gun, researching the real Annie Oakley, and tracking a pack of feral chihuahuas across the golf courses in pursuit of a missing (male) pug named Lassie. And then there’s her sort of secret relationship with her boyfriend Matt.

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I really love this series. Jump on board now and read them in order: MacDeath, The Sound of Murder, and Oliver Twisted. Great fun.

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Murder, Curlers & Canes is Arlene McFarlane’s second Valentine Beaumont mystery, and it’s just as much fun as the first (Murder, Curlers & Cream). This time around, Valentine’s salon is doing well, thanks in part to the sexy new stylist she’s hired. He’s not only Murder, Curlers & Canesdrawing in a bevy of clients who look like supermodels even before he does their hair, but he’s almost enough to take Valentine’s mind off Detective Romero, who’s been missing with no explanation for a couple of months.

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But then Phyllis, the world’s worst salon employee, marches back in, and Valentine finds one of her retirement home clients, Sister Madeline, dead in a plate of lasagna. The police are ready to call that natural causes, but Valentine suspects something else. But who would want to murder a retired nun?

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Everyone has a secret: the dead nun, the sexy stylist, the returning Romero, and practically everybody at the retirement home. Only one of them is threatening Valentine as she gets too close to the truth, but who is it?

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Add to that a series of disastrous blind dates (engineered by Valentine’s mother), a car chase through the mountains, and Valentine’s improvisational skills with the tools of her trade and whatever else she can lay her hands on, and you have a fast paced and funny mystery with more than a dash of romance.

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Lowcountry Bonfire is the sixth entry in Susan M. Boyer’s series about private investigator Liz Talbot, her husband and partner Nate Andrews, and Liz’s long-dead friend Colleen. Yes, Colleen is the guardian spirit assigned to protect Stella Maris, Liz’s island home off the South Carolina coast near Charleston.

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Lowcountry BonfireThis case stays close to home on the island, when its small community is disrupted by the discovery of a body in the trunk of a burning 1969 Mustang convertible, right across the street from Liz’s parents’ house. The victim (and owner of the classic car), Zeke Lyerly, had clearly not committed suicide. Although Zeke was a Stella Maris native, much of his life was a blank filled with grandiose stories most of his friends took for imaginative fables. But Liz, who doesn’t believe Zeke’s wife knew he was in the trunk (or even that he was dead) when she set the car (filled with Zeke’s clothing) on fire, digs for the truth.

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As Liz hunts through Zeke’s mysterious past, she comes to suspect that the answer to this mystery may lie closer to home, but long in the past.

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Boyer’s Lowcountry series features a great cast of characters and well developed mysteries, but a big part of their charm is the setting. The island community of Stella Maris, which Colleen works to protect from both disaster and development plays an important role in the series, as does the nearby city of Charleston. Very entertaining, and almost as good as an island vacation.

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And a short story bonus, Big Foot Stole My Wife, and other stories: I’ve been a Joan Hess fan forever, and have all the Claire Malloy and Maggody books on my keeper shelf, so I grabbed this collection of short stories when I saw it. The stories were all written in the 90s, but they were new to me. Two are Claire Malloy shorts, two Maggody stories (one with Arly and one with only Ruby Bee and Estelle). The other seven are funny in a very dark and sometimes rather twisted way, most of them rooted in domestic tension. Let’s just say no one in these stories is happily married. I enjoyed them all.

Two Tudor Plots

Steve Berry’s The Tudor Plot is a novella, and a prequel to The King’s Deception, short and entertaining. It almost slides over to the science fiction shelf, because its alternate timeline is so clear. Berry’s American set thrillers have fictional Presidents and Senators The Tudor Plot(which sounds to me like a pretty good idea right now), but we expect that in a political suspense novel. In fact, that’s pretty much a necessity. But the contemporary thriller story line in The Tudor Plot features an entirely alternate British Royal Family, headed by Victoria II, the fourth monarch of the Saxe-Coburg line, who succeeded her father, Edward VIII (who never abdicated, apparently willing and able to rule without the support of his American divorcee). Her Duke of Edinburgh, James, is an actual Scot, and they have tempted fate, unhappily, by naming their children Richard and Eleanor (poor choices on Victoria’s part, good ones on Berry’s). All four of these people are important characters in the story. A plot to disrupt and replace the succession echoes the Tudor replacement of the Plantagenet rulers (which I probably wouldn’t have appreciated as much if I hadn’t just read Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time), while the historical story line follows attempts to establish the real existence (and resting place) of the legendary King Arthur in hopes of strengthening the modern monarchy. The connection between contemporary and historical is a little more tenuous than is usual in Berry’s full-length novels, but I enjoyed it.

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I’m sure I read all of Josephine Tey’s mysteries (not that she wrote many) decades ago. When I saw The Daughter of Time on one of the ebook sale emails recently I decided to see if it was as good as its reputation (and as I vaguely remembered). It is, especially for a history geek like me.

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Tey’s detective, Alan Grant of Scotland Yard, is facing weeks in hospital, flat on his back, The Daughter of Timewith a broken leg and a back injury of some unspecified sort (apparently this was possible back around 1950, with no worries about the resulting bill, either). A visiting friend brings him a stack of pictures, including one of Richard III, and Grant whiles away the rest of his stay investigating (with the help of a young American researcher in need of an excuse for hanging out at the British Museum) a very old cold case, the fate of the Princes in the Tower.

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I found the book, and the investigation, fascinating. Tey makes a very good case for Grant’s eventual theories, but what really struck a chord with me was his discussions of various historical “events” that actually never happened, at least not in the form that everyone thinks they did. His examples are largely from bits of English history I know little about (a riot in Wales, remembered as a massacre, in which no one was killed; “martyrs” who not only didn’t die for their faith, but didn’t die at all; vicious religious zealots remembered as heroes). Aha, I thought: Alternative Facts! Not a new concept at all.

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The Daughter of Time was voted Number One of the Best Crime Novels of All Time by the British Crime Writers Association in 1990, rather remarkable for such a non-traditional mystery. Very much worth reading. I may have to rediscover more of Tey’s work.

Three New Mystery Series

I’ve recently read the first installment of three mystery series. They don’t have much else in common (except that I enjoyed them all), but I do my best to find some way to tie these reviews together.

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Curse the DayCurse the Day, by Annabel Chase, is a delightful paranormal cozy mystery, first in a series, set in the small town of Spellbound. Spellbound isn’t just any small town in rural Pennsylvania. It’s populated entirely by paranormals, everyone from angels to vampires, witches to were-ferrets. And none of them can leave—no one is entirely sure how or why, or even when the town was cursed, but cursed it is.

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When underpaid and overworked lawyer Emma Hart stumbles into town (in the arms of a morose fallen angel), she has no idea that she’s anything but an ordinary human being. But when she tries to leave, she walks into an invisible but unbreakable barrier. The curse on Spellbound won’t release her, and the witches of the town recognize her as one of their own—and one badly in need of training. Before she can say abracadabra, Emma finds herself trying to learn the art of spell casting and trying to fill the now-empty shoes of the town’s public defender, a recently murdered vampire.

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Emma is a snarky, self-deprecating, very funny narrator, and the supporting characters, from the apprentice witches (who are sharper than their elders realize) to the cranky centaur sheriff, night-golfing vampires to flea-conscious werewolves, are a hoot. I thoroughly enjoyed Curse the Day, and there are several more installments waiting to be read. Number 2, Doom and Broom, is waiting on my Kindle.

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One of the most enjoyable aspects of the cozy mystery genre is the variety of setting and background. Zara Keane’s Dial P for Poison is the first in a series set on a small island off Dial P For Poisonthe coast of Ireland, featuring Maggie Doyle, who grew up in California but spent childhood summers visiting her Irish relatives on Whisper Island. Recently divorced from both her cheating husband and the San Francisco Police Department, Maggie has come back to help her Aunt Noreen run the Movie Theater Cafe, and maybe to hide out from life for a while. But she’s thrown right back into detecting when someone is murdered during a movie showing at the cafe and Noreen is accused of the crime.

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Surrounded by childhood friends—and enemies—and faced with a local Guard Sergeant who would really rather be playing golf, Maggie recruits a few allies and sets out to clear Noreen.

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I enjoyed both the writing and the setting, and have already downloaded the next book, The Postman Always Dies Twice. Keane’s web site promises at least one more, How To Murder a Millionaire.

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A Study in Scarlet Women is the first installment in Sherry Thomas’ Lady Sherlock series. A Study in Scarlet WomenThomas takes her time setting up the premise for her female Sherlock, Charlotte Holmes, youngest daughter in a thoroughly, suffocatingly Victorian family. When Charlotte deliberately engineers her own social downfall to escape her home life, she inadvertently throws suspicion on her father and sister in the wake of a series of unexpected deaths. Once she gets her now-independent feet on the ground, she falls back on her old penchant of writing letters of detective advice to the appropriate authorities, signing them with the name of her non-existent brother, Sherlock Holmes.

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It took a bit of a stretch for me to buy into a Sherlock Holmes tale in which, let’s face it, Sherlock doesn’t exist, but Charlotte, Lord Ingram Ashburton (who knows the truth), and Inspector Treadles (who doesn’t) combine forces to solve the murders.

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Thomas is primarily a writer of historical romance, and a bit of romance shows up for Charlotte toward the end of the novel, along with vivid descriptions of Victorian London from the viewpoint of a woman who has lost (voluntarily) her social position, and considerable commentary on the situation of Victorian women in general. The next volume in the adventures of Charlotte Holmes is due this fall.

Three Murders & a Death

Arlene McFarlane’s Murder, Curlers & Cream introduces Valentine Beaumont, beautician and amateur detective. It’s not that Valentine wants to be a sleuth—she’s already trying to live down a past incident involving a killer and a perm rod—but she’s got problems. Murder, Curlers & CreamBusiness is down, the mortgage on her salon is due, and she’s short of rent money. She’s also saddled with the world’s worst employee, a distant cousin she can’t quite bring herself to fire, despite regular disasters, and a rival salon owner trying to poach her best employee. But all that takes a back seat to the client waiting for a facial, found dead with an electric cord around her throat.

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Desperate to restore her salon’s good reputation (before the bank forecloses on the shop and her landlord kicks her out of her house), Valentine sets out to solve the case, armed only with her bag of beauty tools. Her plan leads to more problems, not the least of which is handsome police detective Mike Romero, who thinks Valentine should stick to the beauty business.

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She tries, but between a fire, an explosion, and another murder, she can’t seem to avoid trouble. This is a delightful first installment of Valentine’s adventures. And by the time you finish reading about the potential weaponization of various beauty products, you may think twice before your next salon visit.

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Death, Taxes, and Sweet Potato Fries is another hilarious installment in the saga of Tara Holloway, gun-toting IRA agent. This time she’s dealing with human smugglers, Death, Taxes, and Sweet Potato Frieskidnapped girls, fake 1099 forms, an addictive Spanish telenovela, and, of course, those sweet potato fries. Perhaps scariest of all, her mother has teamed up with Nick’s mom to plan The Wedding.

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I love this series, and it never lets me down. This is number 11, and Kelly promises one more, Death, Taxes, and a Shotgun Wedding, in November. And when you’ve caught up with Tara’s adventures, don’t miss Kelly’s series of K9 mysteries, featuring Megan Luz and Brigit.

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I read all the Nero Wolfe books by Rex Stout back in the day, and Robert Goldsborough has done a good job of picking up where Stout left off. Murder in E Minor is set in 1977, Muder in E Minortwo years after Stout’s last installment (A Family Affair), and I had to do a little research (you can find out just about anything on line) to catch up with the events mentioned in the book. Wolfe is lured into taking on his first case in two years by the niece of a man he knew back in Montenegro.

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I’ve only read a couple of Goldsborough’s books (I have more waiting on my Kindle), but so far I think he’s done an excellent job of capturing Archie Goodwin, Nero Wolfe, and all their associates (none of whom have aged a day since Stout began writing about them in 1934). I’m enjoying returning to the old brownstone on West 35th Street.

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I know I read all the Mr. & Mrs. North mysteries back in the day, so I picked this ebook edition up on sale for a nostalgia read. Murder Out of Turn was published in 1941, only the Murder Out of Turnsecond of the 26 installments Frances and Richard Lockridge eventually wrote, and I suspect they hadn’t quite hit their form yet. The main character in the book is actually Lt. Weigand of the NYPD; the Norths (often referred to rather formally as Mrs. North and Mr. North) are really supporting characters. The book is rather slowly paced (at least until the last couple of chapters), wandering off into detailed descriptions of martinis and such, and definitely old fashioned. Nostalgic indeed, but not enough to send me off in pursuit of more of the series. In my opinion, Rex Stout and Agatha Christie hold up better.

Three Good Mysteries

Kate Parker’s Deadly Wedding continues the adventures of Olivia Denis, begun in Deadly Scandal. Set in London in the late 1930s, the series combines mystery with a touch of cloak and dagger adventure. When Olivia agrees to help out with the wedding of a distant cousin, she doesn’t expect to find herself investigating a deadly-weddingmurder. And two attempts and another murder. As Olivia probes the family’s secrets, she has more and more reason to be glad that these people, with whom she spent much of her childhood, are only distant relations. Along the way she learns things she never knew about her father (they’re working together to investigate the murders, but Sir Ronald still doesn’t want to acknowledge Olivia’s job as a journalist), she sees some terrible sights on a trip to Vienna shortly after the Nazis move in, and the coming war colors everyone’s future. Olivia is a determined, independent woman, surrounded by a range of interesting characters, and her instincts for mystery solving are strong. I hope we’ll be seeing more of her Deadly adventures.

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Send In the Clowns is another (#4) thoroughly enjoyable Country Club Murder from Julie Mulhern. This time Ellison Russell witnesses a murder in The Gates of Hell—a haunted house attraction where her daughter Grace appears to have overstayed her curfew. Of course the body disappears send-in-the-clownsbefore the police get there, but when it does turn up it opens a whole can of worms for Kansas City society. Ellison deals with her snobbish mother, her goodhearted but old fashioned father (who thinks Ellison needs a man to “manage” her), and struggles with her up and down feelings for police detective Anarchy Jones and lawyer Hunter Taft. I love the characters in Mulhern’s series, and the 1970s setting is spot on.

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Janet Evanovich’s Turbo Twenty Three is the latest in the long-running series about Stephanie Plum, accidental (and accident-prone) bond recovery agent. I still love this series. Stephanie and Lula still make me laugh out loud. If Lula’s turbo-twenty-threedescription of going into a public men’s room (her idea for a new reality series, after Naked Bungee Jumping didn’t work out) doesn’t make you laugh, you should probably be reading something else. This installment features an enraged clown, murders at an ice cream factory, Grandma’s new boyfriend (a tattooed biker, but age appropriate), Randy Briggs (the three-foot-tall naked bungee jumper), Joe, Ranger, Rex the Hamster, a slimy booby trap, several fugitives, and another wrecked car. All in a day’s work for Stephanie and Lula.

Cindy Brown’s Ivy Meadows Mysteries

MacDeath is the first installment in Cindy Brown’s Ivy Meadows series, and it’s a delightful backstage mystery, as Ivy plays one of the Witches in a wild circus-themed production of MacBeth. (MacBeth is the lion MacDeathtamer, the king is the ringmaster, and the witches tumble in and out of a flying cauldron.) When a cast member dies under suspicious (at least to Ivy) circumstances, she undertakes her own investigation, dragging in her private investigator uncle, never sure which cast members she can trust.

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Quirky characters include a fellow witch who calls herself Candy MoonPie (Ivy’s own real name is Olive Ziegwart), a local news personality who wants to be a Shakespearean actor, a very attractive MacBeth, and a decidedly odd Lady MacBeth. The setting and background, local theater in Phoenix, Arizona, are well described and entertaining.

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When I finished reading MacDeath, I downloaded Ivy’s next two adventures. In The Sound of Murder, Ivy’s theatrical career becomes even wackier, as she plays sixteen-year-old Teazel in “The Sound of Cabaret,” a mash-up of, you guessed it, “The Sound of Music” and “Cabaret.” Well, they’re both set in Germany in the 1930s, aren’t they? Ivy’s just glad to have a dinner theater gig, while she works days at her Uncle Bob’s PI office, Duda Detectives (try saying that while introducing yourself). And a house sitting gig, since she set fire to her apartment, and it will be under repair for a couple of months. Even if that gig includes taking care of a The Sound of Murderswimming pool, not an easy job for someone with a water phobia.

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And then there’s the suicide next door (who turns out to be connected to the theater), the lead actress who can’t remember her lines, Ivy’s own problems with singing in front of an audience, that guy with the mirror sunglasses, and the hot fireman she met when her apartment combusted. Just another day in Phoenix—whoops, is that Ivy’s car catching fire again?

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Ivy and Uncle Bob go undercover in Oliver Twisted, aboard a Dickens-themed cruise ship (the S.S. David Copperfield—and honestly, I want to go on that cruise). They’re looking for a gang of pick pockets and thieves that has been plaguing the entire Get Lit! literary-themed cruise line (they’re redoing the S.S. Anna Karenina because Tolstoy was too depressing). Ivy takes on the part of Nancy in the on board production Oliver Twistedof Oliver! At Sea! (with some amusing lyric changes) and finds herself filling in for an aerial dancer in the magic show, something for which she has no training at all, while Bob poses as a wealthy rancher, and attracts a lady who arouses Ivy’s suspicions.

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Poor cell phone service hinders Ivy’s communications with Bob, and with with Matt back at the group home in Phoenix from which her brother Cody has vanished. Bodies pile up on the ship, along with both real and fake thieves (the boys playing Fagin’s miscreants run loose on the ship, as do all the “ambient characters” from Dickens’ tales).

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There’s a big bonus in the job for Ivy and Bob, as well as a few days cruising Hawaii, if they can figure out what’s going on, who they can trust, and what family ties really mean.

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I hope Cindy Brown is planning more adventures for Ivy and Bob. This is a funny, entertaining series, one of several I am enjoying from Henery Press, a small house specializing in cozy mysteries with a light tone (and great cover art). Their catalog is definitely worth checking out.

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