I 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”
To 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. A 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: