Honeymoon with Murder

It felt fitting to end the year on a cozy mystery, so I went back to Carolyn G. Hart’s Death on Demand series. It’s another one where I am waaay behind; this is number four out of twenty-two and counting. In Honeymoon with Murder, Annie has just tied the knot with Max when she gets a frantic midnight call from her employee and matron of honor, Ingrid. The couple arrive at her house to find the warm corpse of Jesse Penrick; Ingrid is nowhere to be seen.

honeymoon with murderJesse loved to spy on his neighbors and make their lives miserable, so no one is sad to see him dead; unfortunately for the missing Ingrid, however, he had picked fight with her just that morning. This makes her look like a pretty good suspect to conceited mainland circuit solicitor Posey, filling in while the local chief is on vacation. It’s up to Ingrid’s friends, led by Annie, Max, and the indefatigable Hetty, to prove her innocence and find both her and the real killer.

We get a body early on here, much better than in the last one, but there are still plenty of suspects and plenty of clues. Even those who are not murderers have things to hide, which is where Max and Hetty’s information-gathering skills come in handy. All of the bluff, bluster, and breaking-and-entering, though, fall to Annie. Carolyn Hart plays fair, so that the mystery-solving experience is challenging and rewarding. I never feel like she is pulling the rug out from under the readers.

Hetty started out in the first two books as annoying, before she proved her sleuthing skills to Annie and Max. Max’s mother Laurel picked up the banner in the last book and still comes across as annoying rather than humorous; I think Carolyn Hart was going for a blend but I can’t quite be sure. I have a feeling she will continue to pop up in the series.

The constant name-dropping of detectives, titles, and authors still hasn’t gotten old yet, though Hetty and Annie must have cart catalogs for brains. In fact, I found myself writing down a few interesting-sounding references to look up for later on, like Anne Morice. I believe my favorite was when Annie posed as a reporter and chose the pseudonym Beverly Gray.

Sometimes I forget how old these books are, though the lack of Internet-based research should be a giveaway. I didn’t even look at the date (1988) until it was mentioned that two of the older characters served in WWII. The series seems to have aged very well so far. I’m curious how much Max and Annie actually age over the course of it.

Published in: on December 31, 2012 at 3:14 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Something Wicked

I’m back at it with Annie Laurance and Max Darling. Sometimes I see a long series and am excited at how much time I’ll get to spend with characters; at other times I feel like I’ll never get through them all. This is only number three of twenty-two, so I guess I’ll be reading Carolyn Hart’s books for years to come.

The title of Something Wicked suggests a connection to Macbeth, but the plot revolves around a very different play. Annie and Max, with their Broadway past, are starring as the young lovers in the summer theater’s production of Arsenic and Old Lace. The show starts in a week, but the production is plagued with two problems. First, aged Hollywood beach-movie star Shane Petree is a horrible fit for the part of Teddy and would rather chase skirts than learn his lines. His wife Sheridan is backing the play, however, so the cast is stuck with him. Even worse, however, are the slight incidents occurring on and off stage. Props are sabotaged, a stink bomb is set off, and a cast member’s cat is found dead in the window seat.

Soon, however, the production has a bigger corpse and bigger problem when Shane himself turns up dead from a bullet wound in the middle of rehearsal.The circuit solicitor seems determined to pin this on Max because of his blase attitude, and because Shane made a pass at Annie. Finding the murder weapon in his bedroom doesn’t help either. Annie and Chief Saulter will have to use all their wits to clear his name, and come up with a culprit when everyone else has either a solid alibi or no motive.

First things first: don’t pick up this book if you’re not familiar with Arsenic. I though I’d be okay because I knew the premise and had seen about fifteen minutes, but I could tell early on that that didn’t cut it. Parts of the book depend on what roles the characters play, and who is or isn’t onstage at certain times. I ended up watching the movie last weekend, and when I reread the first chapter (and continued the rest of the book) everything made so much more sense. I recommend Arsenic and Old Lace even if you’re not reading this! It’s a comic gem, and Cary Grant is wonderful as always.

Carolyn Hart tries to provide her own humor in this book as well. Henny Brawley, the persistent customer and wannabe sleuth from previous books, has become more tolerable to Annie since they are costars. She’s the first one to smell a rat in the current production, and spends most of her time snooping around–but she does so by channeling fictional sleuths, down to speech and costume. Miss Marple is a particular favorite.

On the personal front, Annie’s soon-to-be mother-in-law Laurel is determined to take the reins of the upcoming wedding. She has a very broad mind and plans to incorporate random elements from wedding traditions around the world into the ceremony. Annie spends half the book freaking out about this and trying to avoid her. I wouldn’t peg Annie as a character afraid to speak his mind, but maybe she’s finally met her match. What makes it worse is that Max is totally on bard with his mother.

Some elements of the series are getting a bit stale. While I initially found Annie and Max’s use of lists to sum up suspect profiles and key information refreshing, it felt a little bit overdone in this book. Also, I’d like a slightly different impetus for the couple’s involvement in the crime, please. The last two books had Annie falsely accused of a crime, so clearly now it was Max’s turn. It’s also sometimes hard to keep track of everyone (which is why Carolyn Hart includes the lists, I guess). Her standard method seems to be to provide a large cast, and keep you going in circles among them until the big reveal at the end.

I have to admit that the ending surprised me; I’m not sure how I feel about it. I do know, however, that my biggest complaint by far with the book is typographical. It’s neat when books start each chapter with a script capital letter, or italics. But putting the first three words in a sans serif font when the rest isn’t? Not cool, Bantam. That random jump from Arial to Times New Roman threw me off every single chapter, and I’m not exaggerating.

One of the highlights of the series is still the constant reference to other mysteries. Lady Molly of Scotland Yard is most definitely going on my reading list! Each book also always features five painting of book scenes Annie has hanging in the store for customers to try to identify as part of a contest. I wish I could remember books with that level of detail! I was so pleased when I recognized one of the books this time around, but it turned to disappointment at the big reveal when I realized I own the other four books as well and have read at least one. Oh well, maybe I’ll get more next time!

Published in: on April 17, 2012 at 1:31 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Design for Murder

I followed up with Carolyn Hart’s next Death on Demand mystery relatively quickly after reading the first one. I don’t know why I waited so long to read these; they are well-written, great fun, and a wonderful tribute to the mystery genre.

In this volume, Annie Laurance, proprietor of the Death on Demand mystery bookstore, has been asked by the frosty Corinne Webster to plan a Mystery Night for the Historical Preservation Society’s house tour in nearby Chastain. Though president, Mrs. Webster makes it pretty clear she does not support the idea, and makes a quick enemy out of Annie, who has to try hard to bite her tongue. Nevertheless, she is thrilled at the opportunity to plot a fictitious crime.

The week before Annie will present her plan to the Board of the Historical Preservation Society, she receives a plot in the mail signed by Corinne Webster which she is instructed to use, about the murder of a woman in which motive abounded. When she reads this at the meeting, however, all hell breaks loose; everyone present recognizes the victim as Corinne, who accuses Annie of creating the plot and threatens to call the whole thing off.

Annie’s fiancé Max Darling, who has recently set up a small investigation practice to pass the time, strongly advises her to have nothing more to do with matter, but Annie is determined to see her Mystery Night through. The other board members are ready to play their roles and are counting on her to make it a success. It look like it will be when tickets begin selling quickly. On opening night, however, when Annie makes a final check at the scene of the crime, she finds Corinne killed for real with her own murder weapon prop.

With this circumstantial evidence it doesn’t take long for the local policeman to hone in on Annie as a number one suspect, especially because she is an outsider to town and had lost her temper with Corinne earlier in the day. If she wants to clear her name it’s up to her and Max to present a credible alternative suspect. Luckily, the revelations in the false plot letter give them a great starting point. Corinne is thwarting the career of a promising young artist by claiming his painting are the property of her family’s museum, which gives the town vixen Sybil another reason to hate her. She has done everything in her power to prevent her timid neice Gail from seeing the brusque young reporter she loves. She has the potential to hurt the marriage or career of two town professionals, and her own husband the mayor might be having an affair. Even her closest friend was once in love with Corinne’s brother and had that relationship broken off. It’s no secret that all those close to Corinne had reason to kill her; the only important question remaining is who actually carried it through.

In a 300-page mystery the murder didn’t occur until almost halfway through, and I didn’t even mind or notice. In the end we do get a double mystery because of Annie’s own plot. Carolyn Hart also spent the time leading up to the murder in a worthwhile manner, setting the stage for the crime and building a general sense of antagonism towards Corinne. She really was a very nasty person. On the other hand, Annie and Max continue to entertain me. They are very likable and well-rounded characters, each with a distinct set of traits and flaws; though different, they complement each other and work well as a team.

It’s so refreshing to find a series with a police protagonist that remains realistic. For so many cozy series I have a hard time believing that the amateur sleuths stumble upon so many bodies, and that the police allow them to participate to the extent that they do. Both Annie and Max have plausible backgrounds for their abilities to solve crimes and plausible reasons for doing so. I like that Carolyn Hart gave them one crime to work with rather than separate interlocking ones, as might have been the temptation. I grew up on the Boxcar Children and Nancy Drew and can suspend my disbelief with the best of them, but I also like having a series where that’s not necessary. I do hope that in the future Max will get more business for his “Confidential Commissions,” though, other than just keeping Annie out of trouble.

Carolyn Hart also continues her myriad of mystery references. I consider myself relatively well-versed in the genre, even if not yet well-read, because my relatives are all aficionados. I recognized a lot of the authors and detectives mentioned, but many were also unfamiliar to me. I’m curious if anyone’s ever made a list of all the references; I did a search but didn’t seem to find one. A few reviews I came across said the habit got annoying, but I actually think it suits Annie’s character. It’s part of her job to be able to spout off authors at will or come up with the title from a customer’s sketchy description. Most of the references were confined to the plot devices of various novels when she was devising her Mystery Night, or characters she thought of when in certain situations. For example, at the Mystery Ball at the end of the tours, everyone must come dressed as a favorite sleuth. I love that Annie chose Nancy Drew and Max was Joe Hardy. It certainly mixes things up a bit. I wonder if Ned doesn’t count as a sleuth, or if Max just didn’t want to bother with a wig over his blond hair.

Part of me wants to keep going in the series right away, but another part wants to actually read more of the mysteries mentioned. A lot of our mysteries were packed up while we redid the spare room. Now that they are out again, they look tempting as the perfect quick reads for weekends.

Published in: on September 27, 2011 at 10:16 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Death on Demand

I received the first few books in Carolyn Hart’s Death on Demand mystery series a couple years ago, and have been planning to read them ever since. Unfortunately, my small paperbacks are three rows deep alphabetically, and anything not in the outermost row falls victim to “out of sight, out of mind.” Luckily, I recently found and read one of Carolyn Hart’s YA suspense novels, Rendezvous at Veracruz, which finally gave me the kick to pick up Dead on Demand.

After three months, Annie Laurance has happily settled into running mystery bookstore Death on Demand on Broward’s Rock Island off of North Carolina. Her uncle left her the store when he died in a boating accident and she has poured most of her inheritance into increasing its success. Death on Demand gave her a chance to honor her uncle, to remember the happy summers she spent with him on the island, and to escape her failed acting career in New York. And, maybe just a little, to also escape Max.

Broward’s Rock has become a haven for mystery writers over the years due to its secluded setting, and one of Annie’s successes has been starting monthly meetings where one writer gives a presentation to the others. The ex-cop talked about how to avoid leaving fingerprints, and the children’s-mystery-writing couple explained the Stratemyer Syndicate. [I grinned happily at this reference, especially at this book was published fairly recently after the Syndicate was sold to Simon and Schuster.] For the upcoming meeting, however, Eliot Morgan has promised to reveal the dark secrets of all the regular authors, and nothing Annie says can dissuade him. In fact, he has recently bought the island realty company and threatens to triple her rent if she interferes.

Annie’s emotions are none too stable when her wealthy ex-boyfriend Max comes to the island, having finally tracked her down, but she is secretly glad for his company and support. Especially at the meeting that night, when someone trips the circuit breaker and uses the darkness to kill Eliot. Suddenly Dead on Demand is a crime scene, and Annie the main suspect because of her motive and opportunity (and fiery temper when questioned accusingly).  Chief Saulter doesn’t seem to be willing to look much further in order to close the case.

Annie is determined to clear her name, and Max is equally determined to help. He finds this at least as interesting as any of the other careers he’s tried, and his ability to locate Annie on the island is proof of his persuasive information-gathering skills. The two need to uncover the dirt Eliot had on all other writers at the meeting. Everyone has a dark secret, but someone wants to make sure that his or her secret goes to the grave unshared.

The mystery book theme running throughout is one of my favorite aspects of Death on Demand. Carolyn Hart references more authors than I could count but does so in a way that shows her genuine knowledge of and appreciation for the genre, much like Annie’s. The description of the bookstore alone was enough to hook me. The children’s room includes not just Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys but also Joan Lowery Nixon’s fantastic YA mystery novels. She knows all the sub-genres, from true crime to romantic suspense. During the course of the book she mentions not just current best-selling authors but past pens often neglected, like the Little sisters, or Leslie Ford, or the Lockridges. It’s an aficionado’s dream.

Referencing a lot of famous and established mystery authors might make some critics scrutinize the story itself more closely, but Carolyn Hart proves that she is capable of being classed with them. Her characters are well-rounded and interesting, and the intriguing mystery plot actually has substance. I struggle sometimes to find quality mysteries, ones that are more cerebral than psychological or forensic. Death on Demand fits the bill perfectly. It’s a variation on the locked room theme with a good dose of investigation, not always legal, and Carolyn Hart keeps the latter from descending into the comical.

I also love the way Annie and Max work as a couple. Annie loves Max but doesn’t think they are right for each other, while Max is convinced they are destined for grand escapades. Each seems to need the qualities of the other. Annie (as well as some of the books reviewers) think of them as a modern Tommy and Tuppence, but there is definitely a healthy dash of Nick and Nora as well. I would say Annie is Tuppence and Max is Nick, if that helps at all. The romance, while present, is not the focus of the story; rather, the couple function as co-sleuths with nearly equal shares in the investigation (though Annie gets more POV). I like this much better than most “cozy” series where the author either escalates the romance too quickly or drags it out over more books than would be believable and constantly throws in new drama. It’s also clean without losing romance. For example, Max stays the night because he is worried about Annie but sleeps on the couch.

This series is as old as I am and still going strong, and for the most part Death on Demand has aged well. I only checked the date when a plot element involving a floppy disk depended on which characters owned the model of computer that could read it–or even owned a computer! It’s funny, in a way. I read enough old books that iceboxes and telegrams don’t phase me in the slightest. I never stop and think, “why didn’t that character just use Google to find the information?” The only things that throw me for a loop are references to recently outdated technology, like VHS tapes, or like the Nancy Drew digest book where George explained the Internet to Nancy and Bess. I guess it’s just a reminder of how much things have changed even over the course of my lifetime.

I’m glad I have the next five or so in the series already because I’m excited to continue. I had to make myself wait to finish the review for this one, however, so I wouldn’t mix up any elements. And, of course, to ensure that it actually got written. How’s that for motivation?

Published in: on July 31, 2011 at 11:23 pm  Comments (3)  
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Rendezvous in Veracruz

The school I teach at was weeding the library at the end of the year and I was lucky enough to grab a couple suspense books for summer reading, including a Jane Aiken Hodge. The one I picked to read first, however, is Rendezvous in Veracruz, by Carolyn G. Hart. And yes, it’s the same Carolyn G. Hart famous for the Death on Demand and Henrie O. series. Apparently she wrote a few YA suspense novels before turning to adult mysteries. The jacket blurb actually calls her “the Helen MacInnes for young people,” which is pretty high praise.

Lin Prescott is an American student at the University of the Americas in Mexico City, and living at a boarding house run by a Senora Alvarez. Her roommate, Maura Kelly, is a cool and sophisticated junior, also an American but familiar with the city from the years her father was with the Consulate. Because of this Maura has almost a bit too much confidence, so that when a handsome man flirts with her on the bus she sees no problem in dating him.

Even though Lin isn’t sure this is a good idea, Luis’ suavity quickly wins over the rest of the girls at the boarding house. He takes Maura out to all the hot spots in the city while Maura plays the role of touristy foreigner. One date night, however, Luis shows up early, and as Lin heads down to say Maura will be ready soon, she sees him slip a note under the clock on the mantel. When she mentions it to her own date, Juan, he assures her that it is probably nothing.

Maura, however, takes the news much more seriously, and is determined that she will not be dated for the convenience of a drop-off spot. With her quick wits she manages to intercept the next note–and the $100,000 in American money accompanying it. Suddenly Maura is in the middle of a dangerous game. She flees to Veracruz to escape Luis, and sends a cryptic message to Lin asking for help. Lin is willing to do whatever it takes, but has no way of knowing who she can trust. Anyone at the boarding house could have been Luis’ correspondent, or even her own date Juan, who has been acting secretive lately. She will have to do this alone, and quickly, because what the girls have stumbled into is so big that they will be lucky to escape with their lives.

When I get a lot of new books I tend to read the first few pages of each, just to get a sense of what they’re about. I did that with Rendezvous in Veracruz and before I knew it I was already on page 70. I could barely put it down all afternoon. It reminds me a little bit of Mabel Esther Allan’s young adult suspense books, like The Sign of the Unicorn, because the characters are on the young side but still living independently and quite capable of getting swept up accidentally into intrigue. The two girls are also a good contrast to each other. Maura is a almost a Nancy Drew-type character, collected and quick-witted and out for justice both personal and political. Lin’s courage is mostly just to make sure Maura will be safe. It’s almost funny how most of the males are completely ready to overlook them, or view them as a threat easily handled, when the opposite is true.

I still have the Dead on Demand series waiting patiently on my bookshelves, and this may be just the kick I need to need to finally read them. It will be interesting to see how Carolyn Hart handles the more classic mystery setting. One thing is for sure; she can definitely write a page-turner.

Published in: on July 17, 2011 at 6:13 pm  Comments (2)  
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