STRANGLED PROSE (1986) by Joan Hess

Hess_Strangled-Prose_ballantineI haven’t read many books in the ‘contemporary cosy’ genre but decided to check this one out after a strong review from that wise mathematician, the Puzzledoctor. It’s the first in the continuing series of Claire Malloy mysteries set in Farberville, Arkansas. She runs a bookshop (‘The Book Depot’) opposite the local College, where her late husband used to teach. He’s been gone 8 years but she is still tied up with the faculty and soon gets mixed up in a campus scandal that leads to a murder spree in the English department …

I offer this review for Bev’s Vintage Silver Age Mystery Challenge; and Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog.

“He had the look of a piranha posing as a discolored goldfish”

‘Azalea Twilight’ is the bestselling author of a dozen steamy romances and the toast of Farberville – the name is a pseudonym but everyone knows that the books are by Mildred Twiller, whose pleasant if philandering husband Douglas is the front-runner to become the new head of the English Department. She decides to launch the new ‘Azalea’ novel – Professor of Passion – at Claire’s bookshop. The jolly atmosphere is shattered when during the launch extracts are read and it is revealed that several of the characters are very thinly veiled attacks on members of the faculty – including Claire’s neighbour Maggie, her lover Britton and even her late husband, revealing their dirty secrets for all to see. Mildred flees and is later found strangled – Claire briefly even wanted to do the job herself but turns her guilt into anger against the cop in charge of the investigation, Lieutenant Rosen. Mostly refusing to help but insisting to stick her nose in anyway, he proves remarkably amenable to this. She thinks it must have been Douglas, but when he is also killed her theories blow up in her face, which doesn’t stop her steady stream of sarcastic invective against the detective (so I guess they must be made for each other).

“Mildred reminds me of a snowman made of marshmallows, superficially soft but with a core of ice”

Hess_Strangled-Prose_pbTo me, this light and perfectly entertaining book often feels like a good episode of Murder, She Wrote and I don’t mean that in a disparaging way. The plot is decent but not overly complex and certainly solvable (frankly, I got the guilty party almost right away) while the range of characters are all well-defined. Claire narrates and so there little scene-setting or atmosphere to speak of. So, with a plot that is pretty easy to crack and not much in the way of memorable descriptive prose, one’s appreciation will depend largely on the the reaction la Malloy herself. Well. she is fond of her drink (she knocks back more whiskeys than Philip Marlowe on a really hard case), doesn’t seem to cook (she pretty much relies on sandwiches and Lean Cuisines), has no head for business and has to put up with her adolescent daughter Caron going through her growth pangs without a father and does so with reasonable stoicism – she certainly doesn’t spend any time worrying.

“We were somewhere between Peyton Place and the butterfly farm, I cautioned myself”

She is a tough cookie in fact, not given to sentiment, and is very plausible – a bit like Jessica Fletcher, who, as often as not, would end an episode gravely looking at the guilty party, not ignoring the seriousness of what has just happened. She is also a bit annoying, constantly sarcastic and often blocks the police because she either feels personally slighted or fearing that she or her daughter might get implicated – not exactly admirable, but pretty realistic I would venture. When one of her daughter’s friends goes missing, her lack of concern definitely bothered me (it turns out she’s been kidnapped by the killer …). Her narration is often wryly amusing, but Claire not only can’t (or, I was secretly hoping, won’t) show much in the way emotion, she really doesn’t seem to care about anything very much either. I’m afraid that as a package I found it all a bit bland and un-involving. Sorry Steve.

The Claire Malloy series

1. Strangled Prose (1986)
2. The Murder at the Murder at the Mimosa Inn (1986)
3. Dear Miss Demeanor (1987)
4. Hess-BusyA Really Cute Corpse (1988)
5. A Diet to Die for (1989)
6. Roll Over and Play Dead (1991)
7. Death By the Light of the Moon (1992)
8. Poisoned Pins (1993)
9. Tickled to Death (1994)
10. Busy Bodies (1995)
11. Closely Akin to Murder (1996)
12. A Holly Jolly Murder (1997)
13. A Conventional Corpse (2000)
14. Out on a Limb (2002)
15. The Goodbye Body (2005)
16. Damsels in Distress (2007)
17. Mummy Dearest (2008)
18. Deader Homes and Gardens (2012)
19. Murder as a Second Language (2013)
20. Pride v. Prejudice (due in 2015)

I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo in the ‘academic’ category:


***** (2 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in 2014 Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo, Campus Crime, Cosy Cozy, Friday's Forgotten Book and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

49 Responses to STRANGLED PROSE (1986) by Joan Hess

  1. tracybham says:

    I read a few books in another series she wrote, set in Maggody, Arkansas. Those were humorous but a bit too humorous for me and seemed all the same after several books. But I think it was the quaint, quirky characters I tired of after a while. Yet I can see how they can be entertaining to other readers. I never tried this series. Even the setting in a bookstore did not entice me.

  2. Margot Kinberg says:

    Thanks for your honest appraisal, Sergio. I like the premise of this one, but then, I’ve a soft spot for academic mysteries and book-ish mysteries. Put them together and I’m interested. Still, perhaps I’ll wait on this one…

  3. A shame – as you said, I really enjoyed this one, mostly for the voice of the narrator. Of course humour is always going to be a personal thing and if that bit doesn’t work, then it’ll undermine the whole experience. I will say though that I thought the sequel, The Murder At The Murder At The Mimosa Inn was even better, but I’ve probably lost you on this series.

    • I do like the humour but I was surprised how forgiving of this one you were given the alibi cheat 🙂 Also, it did bother me that Claire really doesn’t seem to care about anybody at all, just tolerate them – I think the depiction of the relationship with the 14-year-old daughter is fairly plausible, but there was no warmth there at all that i could see … I am fairly tempted by the sequel though as you always make such a good case!

  4. Colin says:

    Sounds moderate but not exactly essential – if I spot one of these I may try it but it doesn’t seem urgent.

    • Couldn’t agree more Colin 🙂 I’d rather watch Murder, She Wrote in fact …

      • Colin says:

        Which, believe it or not, I rather like. I even have a few of the DVDs.

        • You just can’t keep a man of taste down! The first few seasons especially, executive produced by Peter S. Fischer (who writes novels now)

          • Colin says:

            Yes, I have the first two – might have the third as well but I’d have search to be sure.
            It tends to get dismissed but I find it enjoyable to dip in and out of, and the mysteries generally play fair too.

          • It was the successor to the ELLERY QUEEN TV show of the 1970s with the same writers and producers and the same approach and I remain a big supporter – of course it went on so long that it eventually ran put of steam (and Lansbury stopped appearing for almost an entire season apart from introductions at one point!)

          • Colin says:

            I’m going to race off topic here, if you don’t mind. Seeing as I’ve got your attention, and you’ve better knowledge of TV than I do, I have a quick question.
            Having built up some ebay funds and a voucher I want to use, I’ve been mulling over pulling the trigger on the two seasons of Banacek. Basically, is it worth it?

          • The plots are nice and intricate – the main character is a bit overly macho but in the standard Peppard way – if you like him and impossible mysteries, definitely worth a punt (I have the set at home). Don’t spend too much (CALLAN is much better 🙂

          • Colin says:

            Ideally, I’d pick up the lot – hmm, choices to be made.

          • Drop me an email if needs be chum.

  5. Promising concept. I have read a book from another series by her, and remember it as being enjoyable, but I didn’t seek out others. Maybe a similar verdict here. Helpful review, anyway.

  6. I’m not much of a cozy fan. The only author in that genre I read with any regularity is M.C. Beaton.

  7. Richard says:

    I was discouraged enough just by the cover blurbs when I glanced at these in the bookshop to not bother trying one. The cozy I like, it seems are few and far between.

  8. John says:

    Your closing paragraph perfectly sums up why I cannot abide 90% of the books that fit this subgenre. That kind of emotional detachment or utter absence of emotional connection to violent crime is a common problem I find in similar books. Lightheartedness has its place as does cynical humor, but that doesn’t mean gravitas should be cast aside altogether. You’re braver and more committed than I am. I’d probably never have finished this one had I started it.

  9. Yvette says:

    I didn’t think much of the quotes, Sergio. I’ve tried over the years but was never quite able to get through any of these books. I’m glad you reviewed one just in case I weaken one of these days when I find myself with nothing to read. Ha.

    Most modern day cozies can never quite get it right. They don’t seem to understand the tricks of the trade. Or maybe it’s that they concentrate too much on the tricks and none of the trade. The writing trade, that is.

    I think the ‘hobby and murder’ genre has quite put a damper on today’s cozies.

    But why quibble when there are so many vintage cozies to read.

  10. Bev Hankins says:

    Sergio, I had my fill of these after the first two–I enjoyed this one, primarily because of the academic connection, and Mimosa Inn was fun as well. But when I moved on to the next two, I decided that I was done with the series. Not enough fun to balance the fact that Hess just wasn’t keeping me interested.

  11. Sergio, I have read just one cosy in recent times and have been meaning to pay more attention to this sub-genre though I’m not a big fan of academic settings. I also read a murder mystery set inside a bookshop. It was a novella titled “The Book Case” by Nelson DeMille. It was a well-written story.

  12. englishadjunct says:

    Well, your posting (and my discovery of your blog) — just in time! I have been wrestling with a question: What shall I read next? I’ve read your posting, I’ve enjoyed touring your blog, and my question is answered. Bravo! (Note: I am including your site on my list of favorites at Beyond Eastrod —

  13. Peggy Ann says:

    Looks like I will be passing on the 2 or 3 of her books on my TBR shelf without reading! Thanks for helping me clean up a little, Sergio!

  14. Yvette says:

    Okay, having trouble posting on your blog as well, Sergio. Hmmmm…..This better be over by tomorrow. What a pain.

  15. Pingback: 2014 Vintage Mystery Challenges – completed | Tipping My Fedora

  16. Pingback: THE GIRL ON THE BEST SELLER LIST (1960) by Vin Packer | Tipping My Fedora

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