After more than forty years without a case of the flu, I fell prey to this year’s virulent strain this past week. Yes, I did get a flu shot, and possibly the case I had was milder because of that, but nevertheless, I have spent much of this past week taking antihistamines and acetaminophen, which led to sleeping a lot. When I wasn’t coughing violently. So not much progress on making Ghost White Murder ready for publication.
I did manage to work with Susan Coils, my cover designer, to finalize this cover. I knew white flowers would be difficult to render with adequate texture and contrast for a book cover. What I didn’t know was that San has always used vector graphics for the images and the photo by Ed Mullins I wanted to use to depict the ghost town was a jpg that wouldn’t convert easily to vector format. After a mighty struggle, she managed to develop a cover that I think is just right.
If you subscribe to my newsletter, you’ll be getting a sneak peek of what it looks like this month.
Being sick also impacted my reading, in that you have to stay awake to read books. However, I did manage to read three books worth mentioning.
I’ve recently felt like reading classic mysteries, stories similar to cozies in that there is rarely any swearing or gratuitous sex, but different in that there are also no shops or hobbies or romantic interests. In both types of mystery, the primary focus is on the solving of the crime. I went to my bookshelf, where I have several of these I’ve acquired over the years, some from used bookstores, and found this classic mystery originally published in 1930.
For those who are unfamiliar with Ellery Queen, the detective is supposedly the author of these novels, a young man who lives with his father, Inspector Richard Queen, chief of homicide for the New York City police. The two bachelors share an apartment, enabling a believable way for Ellery to get involved with all these murder cases.
In this book, the body of the wife of Cyrus French, the owner of a department store, is found when a model demonstrates a Murphy bed (although it’s never called that in the book, it is a bed that folds down from the wall) in a display window and reveals the murder victim. That immediately poses the questions of who killed her, why did they kill her, and how did she wind up inside the bed?
There are some aspects of this novel that haven’t aged well: Ellery constantly twirling and polishing his pince nez glasses, Inspector Queen reaching for a pinch of snuff with a similar frequency, and the amount of smoking by many of the characters. There are also a couple of stereotypes: Djuna the houseman/valet/etc. for the Queens and a female domestic at the French residence. Since these are minor characters, it didn’t interfere too much with my enjoyment of the novel.
There were also no subplots. The story was all about the investigation, interviewing suspects and witnesses, and Ellery thinking about what had been said or done by them. To me, this was a bit of fresh air after so many “mysteries” spending pages on baking a favorite recipe or getting lost in a history lesson.
Toward the end was the Ellery Queen signature challenge to the reader. In each mystery, the author steps out of character to let the reader know they now have all the clues necessary to solve the mystery. In fact, the way things were presented, I remembered there was one character who had specifically mentioned the key clue earlier in the novel, but I didn’t take the time to go back and find out which one that was before reading to the end.
I was a bit upset that one aspect of the solution was kept secret until after this point in the book, with the reveal of details that apparently were available to Ellery, but not to the reader. This was more in the nature of a confirmation of his suspicions, but still not entirely being fair to the reader. However, this is only the second Ellery Queen mystery, and I believe the author hadn’t yet worked out the conventions in his mystery stories yet.
But it did fulfill my need for a puzzle mystery, one in which all the clues are there to figure out whodunnit.
“Murder and Mozzarella” is the first in a new cozy mystery series about Lottie Brannigan, a young woman who owns a deli that supplies local restaurants in the small English village of Kingsmede. As the first book, a significant portion of it is devoted to introducing the main character, her best friend, and the various other residents of the village. There’s a bit of backstory on each, and a little bit about the history of how they came to be in the village.
We also meet Prisha, her best friend; Rosa, the long-time chef at a restaurant named La Cucina; Elspeth and Luca Bruni, the owners of that restaurant; and Lucien, a substitute grandfather type who owns a used bookstore next to the deli.
Elspeth returns from a restaurant management course accompanied by Rupert Carter-Smith, a restaurant consultant, who has not only promised to transform her business, but has swept her off her feet. Olga, his partner who is expert at sourcing meals, is with them. Needless to say, Rosa and Olga don’t hit it off. Olga wants to do away with Rosa’s style of cooking and traditional recipes. She also eliminates Lottie’s deli specialties in favor of large commercial suppliers. Much of the early conflict in the story centers around these changes.
The book was not without flaws. For one thing, the murder doesn’t take place until two-thirds of the way through the book. That means only the last third is devoted to solving it, which isn’t enough for a dedicated mystery fan.
I was also surprised that the characters didn’t have more depth. I expected these characters to be well fleshed out. But they’re not. I kept forgetting Lottie’s name when I wasn’t reading because she was so shallow. Prisha, who by her name is Indian or perhaps Pakistani by heritage (I’m not going to take the time to search through the book for the answer right now), could have just as well been named Betty or Susan. And Matt, Lottie’s co-investigator, seems to exist merely to be hunky and supply bits of technology as required.
But I could overlook all that. After all, Ellery Queen and Miss Marple and other traditional detectives are often criticized for being flat as characters. However, the mysteries are marvelous.
A mystery stands or falls on the resolution, and unfortunately, this one didn’t work for me. For one thing, in the entire first two-thirds of the novel, only one character stands out as a potential killer. (Well, two, but one turns out to be the victim.) Then, at the very end of the last third, one character undergoes a personality change. I didn’t remember seeing any hints of this potential, except in one broad hint just before this happens.
And worse, one significant detail is left out until the killer is disclosed.
There’s a concept called “play fair with the reader.” This means that there needs to be enough information early in the mystery so that when the killer is revealed, the reaction is “I never saw that coming. But I should have.” When you hold back the whole key to who did it and why, it’s not fair.
I received a copy of this book from the author, but I was not required to leave a review.
Rayne Hall is a multi-published author of both fiction and non-fiction. She primarily writes fantasy and horror and is well known for her writer’s guides, brief books focusing on one aspect of writing craft. Perhaps more than her books, she’s known on Twitter for her lucky black cat, Sulu, who happens to have his own page on her website.
I started following her because of her cat tweets but became a fan of her writing books when she posted a link to a blog post on writing fight scenes. I rarely have fight scenes in my books, but at the time I saw the link, I was trying to write one and realized how out of my depth I was. I picked up quite a few tips from that blog post and have since bought the book it came from, as well as a couple of others. So when I had the opportunity to beta read her latest craft book, I jumped on it.
I did not read this book cover to cover. In fact, Rayne said that wasn’t necessary and that you could focus on the chapters that applied to you. Since I doubt I’ll ever write erotic love scenes or a gay love scene, I skipped those chapters. There was still plenty of information for me in the other chapters, ranging from the first kiss to writing clean love scenes to building conflict and tension.