Under Lock & Skeleton Key, the enchanting first book in Gigi Pandian’s Secret Staircase mystery series, flawlessly balances magic, misdirection and murder.
Tempest Raj is a gifted stage magician who’s forced to move home to Hidden Creek, California, after a performance in Las Vegas goes horribly wrong. Tempest is convinced her stage double, Cassidy, sabotaged her—but with no way to prove it, the down-on-her-luck magician must return to her family home, Fiddler’s Folly.
Fiddler’s Folly is a showcase for Tempest’s father’s own brand of magic. Darius Raj’s company, Secret Staircase Construction, specializes in adding whimsical details like sliding bookcases, hidden staircases and secret rooms to homes. When Tempest meets him at his latest job site, a body is discovered inside a wall that’s supposedly been sealed for more than a century. To make things even worse, the victim is Cassidy. Was Cassidy mistaken for Tempest and killed in her place? Is someone trying to frame Tempest? Could the death somehow be connected to the ominous family curse that the eldest Raj of each generation will be killed, supposedly by magic? Tempest sets out to bring Cassidy’s killer to justice and figure out if the curse is real—and if she’s its next target.
Hidden Creek is a truly delightful setting for a cozy mystery series. Not only does Fiddler’s Folly abound with hidden rooms and intricate locks, but the property also includes the dreamy treehouse where Tempest’s grandparents live. And then there’s the Locked Room Library, a mystery lover’s dream destination that readers will fervently wish truly existed. The world’s most famous crime novels line its shelves, and the library also sports a train car meeting room, skeleton keys and even a suit of armor. Pandian recently wrote an Agatha Award-nominated short story about the Locked Room Library, and her fans will be happy to recognize beloved characters from her other works, like Sanjay Rai, the Hindi Houdini, in Under Lock & Skeleton Key.
The mystery is engaging and full of misdirection (sometimes literally, in the form of sleight-of-hand tricks), and undergirding it all is Tempest’s anxiety around her family curse. But despite the high stakes, Under Lock & Skeleton Key is bursting with heart and hope.