Joanne Collings

Debut novelist Tracy Kiely has come up with the smashing idea of marrying Jane Austen’s wit and social acuity to the form of the modern cozy mystery and gotten excellent results in Murder at Longbourn, which has all the signs of beginning a fine new series. Kiely uses some Austen plot lines, particularly from Pride and Prejudice, and gives her own 21st century take on many of Austen’s favorite social situations (the poor cousin dependent on a wealthier one is particularly notable).

The appropriately named Elizabeth Parker has just broken up with her boyfriend, a man “obsessed with argyle,” and is desperate to find something entertaining to do on New Year’s Eve, something that won’t make her feel so alone. Fortunately, her favorite relative, her Aunt Winnie, is opening a Cape Cod B&B that night and is celebrating the holiday with a planned murder party. Despite the presence of Peter McGowan, the bane of her childhood, Elizabeth decides this is just the way to start off her New Year.

Things, of course, do not go strictly as planned: local, soon-shown-to-be-unpopular, wealthy developer Gerald Ramsey is found shot. Aunt Winnie is a prime suspect since Ramsey was determined to get the property she bought for her B&B. Elizabeth determines to investigate the crime just in case the police decide they have the guilty party in Aunt Winnie. Complicating matters is her interest in the handsome Englishman staying at the B&B. Is he the lover of the dead man’s wife or is he sincerely interested in Elizabeth? And what is Peter, who persists in calling Elizabeth by her childhood nickname of Cocoa Puff, up to?

Elizabeth, much like Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet, is not always as wise as she thinks she is, but she can be great company. She is often amusingly self-deprecating. At one point she compares her reflection to the appearance of the dead man’s daughter, who is looking particularly good.  The morning after an evening when she’s had far more to drink than normal (in her defense, she had a really awful day), she notes she looks “anything but dewy fresh.” She continues, “In fact, I looked like something that sucked the life out of dewy fresh things.”

In the next installation, this reader hopes that Elizabeth’s newly engaged friend and roommate, Bridget, will get more time on the page. Elizabeth’s known her since childhood and remembers that “her dolls were always clad like some bizarre cross of Joan Collins and Liberace.” Peter does not yet feel fully formed as a character, at least in comparison to Elizabeth, but that’s likely to be addressed in future books, as well.

Joanne Collings cozies up with a good book in Washington, D.C.

Debut novelist Tracy Kiely has come up with the smashing idea of marrying Jane Austen’s wit and social acuity to the form of the modern cozy mystery and gotten excellent results in Murder at Longbourn, which has all the signs of beginning a fine new series. Kiely uses some Austen plot lines, particularly from Pride […]

One of the biggest challenges faced by the author of cozy mystery series is finding original and convincing ways to involve his or her amateur detective protagonist in murder investigations book after book. After all, the best part-time sleuths have much in common with their readers and it is unlikely that most of them get involved in homicides on a regular basis. That the connection to the crime is in some way personal is a given for the first book; after that, more invention and imagination are required, or, perhaps, just honesty.

That’s where Clare O’Donohue is to be commended. The first death in A Drunkard’s Path (the second Someday Quilts Mystery after The Lover’s Knot) is connected to heroine Nell Fitzgerald only because the local police chief, stands her up on their first date without even calling to explain—a body has been discovered in their quiet Hudson River community. That’s enough to pique Nell’s active imagination, but her life is too full at the moment—she’s working at her grandmother’s quilt shop, starting art classes, meeting a talented but mysterious and apparently homeless fellow student—for her to get too involved in the investigation.

But the next death is someone she knows, and the young woman is killed in the backyard of Nell’s grandmother’s house. One of the suspects is Nell’s teacher, Oliver White, a famous artist who’s been showing a lot of interest in Nell’s grandmother, Eleanor. Though Nell now has all sorts of reasons to be curious, she’s also willing to admit that she’s also just plain nosy, a refreshing confession for an amateur detective.

Nell gets plenty of assistance from her fellow quilters of all ages, who are happy to unleash their own inner Nancy Drews in order to protect Eleanor. She gets less support from that police chief, Jesse Dewalt, and they once again take a detour on the road to romance.

O’Donohue finds a lot in quilting that applies to murder investigations: you’ve got to step back from what you’re working on once in a while in order to see it; the process is important; and “There’s no reason that solving a murder . . . should be any less organized than a quilt meeting.” These are lessons that Nell, a novice quilter, gradually takes in: “[A]nything, no matter how scary it seems at first, can be sorted out if you take it step by step. I just wasn’t sure if I was thinking about quilting, the murder investigation, or my relationship with Jesse.”

Joanne Collings cozies up with a good book in Washington, D.C.

One of the biggest challenges faced by the author of cozy mystery series is finding original and convincing ways to involve his or her amateur detective protagonist in murder investigations book after book. After all, the best part-time sleuths have much in common with their readers and it is unlikely that most of them get […]

It is fascinating how two mysteries with first-person narrators, similar settings (small towns) and heroines (women struggling over whether to divorce their husbands) can be so different. Working Stiff goes for laughs, while For Better, For Murder tugs at the heartstrings.

In Working Stiff, set in Wisconsin, Mattie, a former nurse, has just started working as a coroner after finding her surgeon husband in a compromising position with another nurse. Since the house she shared with her husband is right next door to her new place, Mattie can’t help spying on him, and one night she witnesses him arguing with the other woman. Shortly afterward, Mattie is called to a murder scene: the victim is the other woman, making her husband the primary suspect.

Mattie has earthy sensibilities and big appetites; despite her unresolved marital situation, she finds herself very attracted to the detective investigating the case. Unable to contain her own curiosity, fueled by her need to know if her husband is guilty of more than infidelity, Mattie, in her new role as deputy coroner, starts her own investigation. Since she knows everyone in the victim’s world, she can do this with some ease. Both Nancy Drew and Agatha Christie are invoked, and several funny episodes occur on the way to Mattie solving the crime and coming to a decision about her marriage.

Here’s hoping Annelise Ryan will give us more of Mattie’s mother (“a modern day Nostradamus” and “many-times honored member of the Disease of the Month club”) in the next installment.

Meanwhile, in Lisa Bork’s For Better, For Murder, set in New York’s Finger Lakes, Jolene Asdale is struggling to keep her car business alive when a dead body falls out of the Ferrari she is showing to a customer. That’s bad enough, but the victim is a man she briefly dated and recently had a widely witnessed (and wrong interpreted) discussion with about business zoning. The man who is investigating the murder is the husband she hasn’t been able to bring herself to divorce even though she left him three years before. And then Jolene’s bipolar sister, who has been overhearing threats to Jolene (or are they just more of her voices?), disappears from the state psychiatric facility. Is she now part of a team robbing local convenience stores? Jolene’s husband Ray is convinced Jolene knows more about everything than she is admitting. Meanwhile, she’s trying “not to notice that Ray still carries a picture of [her] in his wallet.”

Jolene turns detective to save herself and her sister, giving Bork a chance to explore what’s it’s like to own a small business in a small town where everyone knows your business. Like Ryan, she includes gay characters while taking care to point out that there are still difficulties with being gay in a small town. Jolene, whose family history of mental illness haunts her, is a touching character. The plot is a little complicated, but the series has promise and the book ends with a happy twist.

Joanne Collings cozies up with a good book or two in Washington, D.C.

It is fascinating how two mysteries with first-person narrators, similar settings (small towns) and heroines (women struggling over whether to divorce their husbands) can be so different. Working Stiff goes for laughs, while For Better, For Murder tugs at the heartstrings. In Working Stiff, set in Wisconsin, Mattie, a former nurse, has just started working […]

“One lovely big family. For Alison, Allersmead is a kind of glowing archetypal hearth, and she is its guardian. This is all she ever wanted: children, and a house in which to stow them—a capacious, expansive house. And a husband of course. And a dear old dog. And Denby ovenware and a Moulinex and a fish kettle and a set of Sabatier knives. She has all of these things, and knows that she is lucky. Oh, so lucky.”

When I was a teenager I planned on having six children: three girls, three boys. I wasn’t nearly so offhand about the husband as Alison, and I wanted more than one dog, as well as several cats. By the time I hit my mid-20s, I was off the idea of having children and wasn’t keen on marriage either. But those early yearnings—so true and so deep at the time—all came back while reading Penelope Lively’s wonderful new novel, Family Album.

With an established author such as Lively, readers expect graceful prose, astute insights and deft characterizations. All are present in Family Album, in which we visit matriarch Alison and her husband Charles, their six grown children and the former au pair, Ingrid, via snapshots of past and present occasions, daily life, games and holiday trips. With a delicately wielded scalpel, Lively opens wide this family with quiet precision.

You don’t have to come from a large family to recognize the turbulent dynamics. Eldest daughter Gina (once told by Alison that she was never her favorite child) and her siblings are widely flung and largely successful, but not one of them has escaped the challenges inherent in being part of a large family. Yet, despite their differences—and there are many—this dynamic group is first and foremost a family, and when a loss and a troubling discovery require their cooperation, they band together and do what we all hope our own families will do in times of trouble: whatever needs to be done. Through these efforts, the clan regroups, forming a new, more understanding kind of family.

Joanne Collings writes from Washington, D.C.

“One lovely big family. For Alison, Allersmead is a kind of glowing archetypal hearth, and she is its guardian. This is all she ever wanted: children, and a house in which to stow them—a capacious, expansive house. And a husband of course. And a dear old dog. And Denby ovenware and a Moulinex and a […]

Don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t learn anything from reading fiction. Here is an abbreviated list of things I learned from Jess Lourey’s September Fair: Neil Diamond went to NYU on a fencing scholarship, his fans are called Diamondheads (a fact that would have come in handy when I worked in an office of Neil Diamond fans), there is a competitive “sport” known as sheep riding or mutton busting, and Araucana chickens lay blue and green eggs. But September Fair is a lot more than a compendium of Neil Diamond and State Fair knowledge.

Mira James, a librarian/newspaper reporter from Battle Lake, Minnesota, is on a week-long assignment covering fair activities. She’s glad to be there, having discovered four murdered bodies in as many months after moving to Battle Lake for a quieter life. She’s considered giving up on Battle Lake but decides to stay. “It was a new idea, this sticking-it-out approach, and it looked good on paper.” Then she witnesses the death of the new Milkfed Mary, Queen of the Dairy, and reporting on the fair gets a lot more complicated.

Mira now has to look into the murder as well as the fair’s attractions. She’s assisted by her elderly friend, Mrs. Berns, major Diamondhead and winner of tickets to Diamond’s fair concert, which she shares with Mira; Berns also introduces Mira to sheep riding. Also in attendence is Battle Lake’s steamroller of a mayor, Kennie Rogers, who talks with a heavy Southern accent despite her Minnesota roots.

Lourey’s affection for the state fair is evident. She’s particularly good on the food, especially Mira’s weakness, the Deep-fried Nut Goody on a Stick. (Just about anything you can imagine—and some things you can’t—are sold deep-fried on a stick at fairs.) Mira may question how anyone ever thought of the idea of sculpting a head in butter, but she remains respectful of the talent and difficulty it takes to do this. And, since this is the fifth in the murder-by-month series, Lourey indicates awareness of the darker side of the fair: behind-the-scenes nastiness and more serious crimes and the unsavory influence of big business on the foods we consume, deep-fried or not, in this lively mystery.

Joanne Collings writes from Washington, D.C.

Don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t learn anything from reading fiction. Here is an abbreviated list of things I learned from Jess Lourey’s September Fair: Neil Diamond went to NYU on a fencing scholarship, his fans are called Diamondheads (a fact that would have come in handy when I worked in an office […]

The author’s motive for writing a novel—if I am even aware of it—usually matters less than being educated and entertained. But that can’t be said about The Puzzle King. In her third novel, Betsy Carter fictionalizes the lives of her great uncle and aunt, now gone, in order to understand how they came to America and eventually rescue hundreds of people—including her parents—from Hitler’s Germany, making the book interesting for those facts alone.

Simon and Flora Phelps are both immigrants: Simon’s mother sent him alone at age nine to New York from Lithuania in order to save him from a life in the army; Flora came as a teenager to join one of her sisters. Flora keeps in touch with her mother and remaining sister and her family who are still in Germany, but Simon, despite his strenuous efforts, has lost track of his. He’s a talented artist who has a successful career, crowned “the Puzzle King” by Time magazine for the jigsaw puzzles he creates as promotional items for various products. But he is increasingly aware of his outsider status as a Jew. He and Flora have a solid marriage, and, while they are never able to have children, they are close to Flora’s niece, Edith, who comes from Germany to visit for a glorious summer in 1923.

Seema, Flora’s older sister, is not interested in marriage or children, or any religion. She is an intriguing character, drawn to crosses, which she begins to collect in secret. “[I]t was the way her fingers wrapped around the cross and the perfect symmetry of its design that reassured Seema that some things in life were permanent.”

As the situation in Germany worsens for Jews, only Simon and Flora see the growing dangers for their loved ones—including Seema, who has moved back to Germany. What they do to help their loved ones forms the heart of the story.

The novel’s episodic structure doesn’t always do full justice to its wide range of characters, and the ending seems too sudden and lacks the emotional weight hinted at by the prologue. Still, The Puzzle King is a vibrant portrait of a time and some unexpectedly courageous people.

The author’s motive for writing a novel—if I am even aware of it—usually matters less than being educated and entertained. But that can’t be said about The Puzzle King. In her third novel, Betsy Carter fictionalizes the lives of her great uncle and aunt, now gone, in order to understand how they came to America […]

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