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?