Murder, She Wrote: Design for Murder by Jessica Fletcher, Donald Bain and Renée Paley-Bain

Danger alert: Jessica Fletcher’s in town…

😀 😀 😀 😀

design-for-murderDuring a catwalk show in New York’s Fashion Week, a young model collapses and dies. Rowena Roth had been an unpleasant girl, arrogant and rude, so few people other than her mother could truthfully say they grieved for her loss. It seems like one of those tragic things that happen sometimes – perhaps a heart condition that she had never been aware of. But then a second model is found dead. The question is: are the deaths connected? Fortunately for the NYPD, Jessica Fletcher is in town, ready to offer them as much advice as they can take…

I love the TV series of Murder, She Wrote. It’s my go-to cosy for winter afternoons, and I’ve been known to binge-watch several shows one after the other. This is largely because I think Angela Lansbury is fab in the role, plus the style of the show means that, despite the phenomenal murder rate, nothing distasteful ever really happens, and Cabot Cove still looks like a wonderful spot to spend some time. Would the books work as well without Lansbury’s presence?

The fabulous face of Angela Lansbury 2...
The fabulous face of Angela Lansbury 1…

The story is told in the first person (past tense) from Jessica’s perspective, so we get to see the thoughts inside her head. Jessica is all sweetness and charm on the outside, and full of some rather waspish thoughts on the inside. I kinda liked that – I always assumed on the TV show that, behind that ultra-friendly exterior, an astute and clear-sighted brain must be ticking away. Like Miss Marple (from whom she’s clearly directly descended), Jessica must be an ‘expert in wickedness’ if she’s to see through the façade the villain erects to cover his/her crimes. I found I could easily imagine Angela Lansbury speaking her lines, and the marvellous facial expressions she would have used to convey the unspoken thoughts.

The fabulous face of Angela Lansbury 2...
The fabulous face of Angela Lansbury 2…

I was rather disappointed that the book was set in New York rather than Cabot Cove. But Seth and Mort both appear during phone conversations, so I didn’t have to do without my two favourite men completely. The description of Fashion Week felt thoroughly researched – though given, of course, that Murder, She Wrote spin of cosiness that means it doesn’t feel quite authentic to real life. The plot covers the lengths to which young girls will go to succeed in the cut-throat world of modelling, touching on subjects like extreme dieting and cosmetic surgery. The jealousies are shown too, but it’s all done with a light touch. And, of course, we don’t care about the murder victims, so no dismal grief or angst to contend with.

The fabulous face of Angela Lansbury 3...
The fabulous face of Angela Lansbury 3…

Jessica is just as irresistible to men as she is in the show – this time it’s Detective Aaron Kopecky who’s badly smitten by her charms. Got to admit, this was the one bit of the book that I found tedious – Kopecky’s admiration became repetitive and his attempts to woo Jessica by dangling information about the case in front of her became laboured and annoying in the end. But it wasn’t enough of an issue to spoil the book for me overall.

The fabulous face of Angela Lansbury 4...
The fabulous face of Angela Lansbury 4…

The plot is quite interesting, and stays more or less within the bounds of credibility. Jessica is at the show because of her friendship with the designer’s mother – she and her son both hail from Cabot Cove originally. And it’s not long before Jessica is nosing around amongst the models, publicity people, cosmetic surgeons, et al, coming up with stunning insights long before poor Detective Kopecky is even close. I don’t think it could really count as fair-play, though maybe that’s just sour grapes because I didn’t work out the solution. But it’s well written – a nice cosy, with the genuine feeling of the show and enough contact with the familiar characters to prevent me missing the Cabot Cove setting too much. I’ll cheerfully read more of these, and recommend it not just to fans of the show, but to cosy lovers in general. Good fun!

The fabulous face of Angela Lansbury 5...
The fabulous face of Angela Lansbury 5…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Berkley Publishing Group.

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Oliver Twisted (Ivy Meadows 3) by Cindy Brown

Please, sir, I want some more…

😀 😀 😀 😀

oliver twistedIvy Meadows is an actress part of the time and a private detective the rest of it. So when her PI boss, her Uncle Bob, is hired to investigate a series of thefts aboard a cruise ship, Ivy puts both her talents to use – detecting when she’s not playing Nancy in the Dickens-themed cruise’s production of Oliver! At Sea! But things take a serious turn almost as soon as she steps on board, when she finds the body of the girl she was due to share a cabin with stuffed into the wardrobe. It’s not clear how she died, but Ivy and Bob suspect murder and that in some way her death may be tied in to the thefts.

This is a fun romp, with a very likeable lead character in the shape of Ivy. Her career as a detective is just beginning, so she’s not what you’d think of as slick at it. Her technique is mainly to blurt out questions at people and hope they don’t wonder why she’s asking! But she’s intelligent and perceptive, curious about people in general, and endearingly aware of her own deficiencies. Fortunately she’s also attractive, both physically and personality-wise, so she soon builds up some on-board friendships that help her with her enquiries, while adding to the general fun.

The Dickens theme is done well, without taking itself too seriously. The cruise ship sounds frighteningly realistic with Boz’s Buffet, the Drood Deck, and fancy-dress parties where everyone dresses up as Dickens characters. The actors double as ‘ambient’ characters when they’re not on stage, so that Oliver wanders around picking the pockets of guests, while Madame Defarge knits scarves and an Eastern European Bill Sykes is mean to our Nancy (when he’s not flirting with her).

I must admit that, as has become one of my regular whines, I felt the book was a bit too long for its content, especially in the first half. It seemed to take forever for the investigation element to get underway, and I had to suspend an awful lot of disbelief that no formal investigation of the death seemed to be taking place. But when a second death happens about halfway through, things hot up, and the plot is actually rather darker than it seems as if it’s going to be. However, the general feeling is one of a well-written cosy.

Cindy Brown
Cindy Brown

There’s lots of humour in the book, and I appreciated this more as the book progressed and I found Ivy had won me over. If murder and theft aren’t enough, she also has to contend with the fact that her Uncle Bob seems to have fallen for a woman whom Ivy suspects of being a fortune hunter or worse. Oh, and then there’s the little matter that no-one thought to warn her of when she took the job as Nancy – that part of her task would be to perform aerial acrobatics 40 feet above the stage! The production of Oliver! At Sea! is largely ‘borrowed’ from the musical Oliver, with some strategic changes – songs such as Gruel, Glorious Gruel have an eerie familiarity! There’s also a touch of romance, but this isn’t allowed to overwhelm the book.

A very enjoyable cosy, better written than many in that genre, with a decent plot and some great characters. I can only echo Oliver himself… “Please, sir, I want some more!” It’s apparently the third in the series, each of which has a theatre theme, and I’ll be adding the other two to my list for those days when only something light-hearted and fun will do.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Henery Press.

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Book 7
Book 8

The Case of the Dotty Dowager by Cathy Ace

the case of the dotty dowagerOch aye, it’s no’ bad…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

Henry Twyst, Duke of Chellingworth, is worried. His mother, the dowager duchess, has phoned him in the middle of the night to say there’s a dead body in the dining room of the Dower House, but when he gets there, no corpse is to be found. At first, he assumes his mother must have dreamt it or worse, that she is beginning to lose her marbles, but when a blood-stained hat is found on the floor he begins to wonder. Since the local police don’t seem to be taking the matter seriously, he calls in the women of the WISE Enquiries Agency; their brief – to discover if the body really existed and, if so, who was it?

This is quite a fun cosy that is obviously intended to be the first of a series. The acronym WISE stands for Wales, Ireland, Scotland and England – the birth places of the four women who run the agency. It’s not really explained how the four came together – there’s a brief mention of them all having been involved in solving an earlier case but that’s all – but there’s plenty of potential for them to develop into a nicely mixed team, so long as Ace can avoid going too far down the road of using rather clumsy national stereotypes. Oddly she only stereotypes the Scot and the Englishwoman (Cockney, of course) – the Irish and Welsh contingent seem to escape. (I believe she is of Welsh origin herself, though now living in Canada, and perhaps she genuinely believes that Scots start every sentence with ‘Och’ and eat haggis every time they get the chance, and that Cockneys call everyone ‘doll’ and go into a decline if they can’t hear the Bow Bells. I suppose when you start life in a country where everyone is called Dai the Post and eats leeks three times a day it’s hard to avoid national stereotyping… 😉 But I feel it was a real pity the Irishwoman never once got to say ‘begorrah’ or hit anyone with her shillelagh.) I am being facetiously unfair – the stereotyping is reasonably low-level and hopefully will disappear completely once the characters’ personalities are more fully developed in later books.

Cathy Ace
Cathy Ace

There are two linked crimes in the story – one is very original and quite fun and I won’t spoil it by giving any hints here. The other is the murder which, while it is eventually solved, is left unsatisfactorily explained – it feels as if it got lost along the way as the author got more interested in the other strand. The WISE women’s technique is basically to use their various people skills to get people to let things slip during chit-chat, though one of them is a computer expert who finds a lot of background information online. The chit-chat element is enjoyable and the women are well enough drawn so that we see each of their different personalities affecting how they approach their tasks. The online stuff is much less fun – lengthy typewritten reports full of information that it’s highly unlikely anyone could find online without hacking government websites, which would not be the WISE women’s style at all. I felt this was a way for the author to slip in information that she couldn’t quite see how to have her characters uncover in more credible, and interesting, ways.

Overall, then, there are some weaknesses in the plotting, but the characters are likeable and I suspect will become more so over time as the dynamics amongst them get the chance to develop more fully. And it fulfils well the main function of cosies – to be light and enjoyable to read. First books in series are often tricky since it takes time for characters to be introduced, and since this one has four main protagonists that problem is magnified in this case, but Ace pulled it off well enough that I will certainly be interested in seeing how the series develops. Och aye, I certainly will!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Severn House.

Book 13
Book 13

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Death at Wentwater Court (Daisy Dalrymple 1) by Carola Dunn

death at wentwater courtAn entertaining cosy…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

It’s 1923, and the Honourable Daisy Dalrymple, daughter of a viscount, has broken with tradition by getting a job. Hired by an up-market magazine to write articles on stately homes, her aristocratic background is useful in allowing her to mingle on an equal footing with the owners and their families. So as the book begins, Daisy is on her way to stay at Wentwater Court, home of the Earl of Wentwater.

Daisy is not the only guest and she soon finds that the house is filled with tensions and misunderstandings. The Earl’s new young wife Annabel seems isolated and unhappy and is being pursued by another guest, the obviously wicked Lord Stephen Astwick. The Earls’ three grown-up children from his previous marriage are also visiting – James, showing every sign of resenting his new stepmother and hinting that she is returning Lord Stephen’s affections; Marjorie, who fancies herself in love with Lord Stephen and is wildly jealous of Annabel; and Geoffrey, his outwardly quiet manner hiding the fact that he has fallen in love with the wrong woman. Add in an old admirer of Daisy’s, and the house party is hardly set to be a great success. But when Lord Stephen falls to his death through the ice on the frozen lake at first everyone assumes it’s an accident…until Daisy’s photographs reveal that a human hand may have been at work…

This is a highly entertaining mystery with all the hallmarks of a ‘cosy’ – the deeply unlikeable victim who ‘deserves’ all he gets, a rural location with a limited cast of suspects, an amateur detective. All it needs is a nice romance – enter the delicious Detective Chief Inspector Alec Fletcher of the CID! Will he be the man who can help Daisy to get over the loss of her fiancé in the war? Within hours, Alec and Daisy have developed a mutual trust and understanding that sees them begin to work together as a team to solve the mystery of Lord Stephen’s death.

Carola Dunn
Carola Dunn

OK, the plot is a bit silly really, with the various misunderstandings being not unlike a Wodehouse plot on a particularly busy day. One quick conversation between Annabel and the Earl could have resolved everything long before murder was ever required, and the ending requires the reader not just to suspend disbelief but to strangle it. But then the book is very convincingly emulating the style of the Golden Age, and the same could be said of many of them. Both Daisy and Alec are attractive characters and their budding romance looks like it will be an enjoyable one. The book is well written, with plenty of humour but with enough weight to the plot to make it interesting as well as enjoyable. Altogether this is a fun read and I look forward to reading some of the others in the series – I believe there are more than twenty of them so far.

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The Grand Cru Heist (The Winemaker Detective Series 2) by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen

the grand cru heistA pleasurable palate-cleanser…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When winemaker and critic Benjamin Cooker is brutally attacked and car-jacked one night in Paris, he feels he needs to take some time out of work to recover, so he heads for the Loire Valley where he can do a bit of wine-tasting while otherwise taking it easy. That’s the plan anyway, until one of the other guests at the hotel is murdered and the waiter disappears. Meantime one of Cooker’s friends in the wine business is being targeted with a series of anonymous letters from someone who appears to be stealing cases of his wine from different places. Suddenly Cooker and his assistant Virgile seem to be involved in two investigations…

This delightfully short book falls firmly into the category of ‘cosy’. There is a plot and an investigation, and there are a few darker moments around Cooker’s feelings of vulnerability after being attacked and the illness of Virgile’s sister. But these are all tucked comfortably into the spaces between the long leisurely meals, discussions of fine wine, post-prandial cigars and drooling over vintage cars with which Cooker fills his day.

vineyard loire valley

This is the second in a series, though the first I’ve read, and both Cooker and Virgile are well-developed and likeable characters with whom it is a pleasure to spend some time. Cooker is middle-aged and happily married, with a temper but loyal to his friends, and with a zest for life that covers both his work and leisure time. Virgile is his young assistant, attractive and unattached, who is learning about the business and occasionally about life from the older man. The rest of the characters aren’t quite so well-developed, perhaps unsurprisingly in a book that comes in at around 150 pages; and the murder element of the plot is fairly easy to work out, though the other strand about the wine-thefts and letters is less straightforward. The quality of the writing is good as is the translation by Anne Trager.

Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen
Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen

I’m not going to pretend that this book counts as great literature – it’s not trying to be. But it’s a light, pleasurable read that works beautifully to cleanse the palate between heavier books. I’ve already downloaded one of the others in the series to have in reserve for the next time I need a quick pick-me-up. Recommended.

Thanks to Margot at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist for recommending this one – here’s her review.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Le French Book.

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Ten Lords A-Leaping by CC Benison

Would have benefited from the guillotine…

😐 😐 😐

ten lords aleapingWhile taking part in a charity parachute jump, vicar Tom Christmas (yes, that’s right, Father Christmas) injures his ankle and is forced to stay with friends in the nearby manor house of Eggescombe Hall. This means he’s on hand to do a bit of amateur detecting when one of his fellow guests is found murdered in the middle of the labyrinth in the ground of the hall. Well, he couldn’t leave it up to the somewhat incompetent duo of Detectives Blessing and Bliss, could he? (Yes, that’s right, Blessing and Bliss!)

This is a fairly cosy murder mystery with a country house setting, well written and with a good deal of light humour. Had it been roughly half the length, it would have been a very enjoyable read. Unfortunately it is so padded with unnecessary description and a huge cast of characters, most of whom are merely there to fill up space, that I found it a real struggle to get through. It took me about a third of the book to get the main characters sorted in my mind and even at the end I found I was still having to think back to work out who hated who and why. Partly that’s because there are so many Lords and Ladies, all referred to sometimes by name and sometimes by title; partly it’s because several of the characters don’t really develop much of a distinctive personality until quite late on; and partly it’s because most of the suspects (and the victim) are so unpleasant that I didn’t really care whodunit. To add to the problems, there is also a sub-plot which clearly carries over from previous books and is referred to on and off throughout, but it isn’t until near the end that we are told what happened before, meaning that this is a constant frustration and distraction for anyone coming new to the series.

CC Benison
CC Benison

There are good points. Tom himself is a very well developed character, and much less twee than his name suggests. We mainly get to know Tom’s avidly curious housekeeper through the very funny letters she writes to her mother, which provide an on-going (and much-needed) summary of the plot so far every now and again. The plot hangs together fairly well, although it is pretty far-fetched, and there are plenty of suspects and red herrings. But overall, there is just too much of everything, and there were several points where I could have cheerfully given up.

I suspect that there is a good book in there struggling to get out but, for me, it didn’t make it. However, I feel the series has potential in terms of the writing and Tom Christmas as a character, if only Benison (yes, that’s right, Benison!) can work out how to apply a much tighter focus…and get rid of the silly names.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House.

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Murder at the Maples (Flora Lively 1) by Joanne Phillips

murder maples 2A promising start…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

When Flora Lively is left to run her father’s removals business after his sudden death, it’s not what she’d planned to do with her life. Constantly at loggerheads with her father’s manager, Marshall, who happens also to be her uncle’s step-son, and with a big new competitor moving in on the territory, this is no time for Flora to be concentrating on other things. But her friend Joy, an old lady recently widowed and now living in the Maples Retirement Village, is getting increasingly upset about odd events that are happening there and wants Flora’s help to investigate. At first Flora thinks Joy is imagining things but gradually she is forced to accept that all is not what it might seem on the surface…

This ‘cosy’ mystery is very well-written and is a promising start to a new series. Phillips gets the balance between plot and humour just about right and on the whole her characterisation is strong. I particularly enjoyed the character of Joy – although elderly and not particularly well, she’s feisty and funny and is determined to get to the root of what’s going on, and it’s refreshing to see an older person get a big role as something other than helpless victim.

Joanne Phillips
Joanne Phillips

Flora’s character is also very well-drawn – a kind-hearted and caring person with a lively interest in people, her interactions with Joy and the other elderly residents are believable and enjoyable. Unfortunately, though, in other ways I found her rather annoying. Aged 29, she behaves like someone a decade younger and I found myself getting progressively irritated with her ‘sexual tension’ wrangling with Marshall, especially since as two single adults there was absolutely no reason for them not to get together if they wanted. I felt we’d all have been a lot happier if they would just get on and get it over with (a point made repeatedly by their employees, though perhaps more tactfully). I was also a little disappointed that she was so rubbish at running the business and yet wouldn’t stand aside and let Marshall do his job. However these are small niggles and first books in series often have these kinds of issues because so much character development has to be packed in all at once.

The plot is complex enough to keep the reader’s attention throughout, with a nice twist or two towards the end. Overall, I found this a thoroughly enjoyable read which will certainly encourage me to stick with the series and see how it develops. Recommended.

This was a TBR Thursday ‘winner’ – here’s the post from Rebecca Bradley that alerted me to it. Thanks, Rebecca!

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