Strangled Prose by Joan Hess

strangled-prose-978144727687601Farber, Arkansas, a college town, where Claire Malloy supports her fourteen year-old daughter by running an academic bookstore. Professor of Passion is hardly the sort of material that she normally stocks, but her friend Mildred, the real identity of author Azalea Twilight, insists on holding the book launch at the shop. What could go wrong?

When passages from the book are read aloud to the gathered masses at the launch, it becomes apparent that Azalea Twilight has an axe to grind. The book is full of thinly veiled references to genuine scandals among the university faculty, including Claire’s late husband. It leaves a lot of people very angry – and one person angry enough to follow Mildred home to kill her…

Another author and series with a large back catalogue that I’ve never heard of before, but the nice folk at Bello asked me to review this one – the first, by the way –  which has been re-released in electronic and paper formats, so I thought, why not?

It probably falls into the cosy category, by the skin of its teeth. By which I mean, to tick off my personal checklist:

  • Not Agatha Christie – check
  • Distinctive career for sleuth – bookseller, check.
  • Large entourage of supporting and clearly innocent friends – nope. Everyone’s a suspect here – at times there is the potential for anyone to be the killer.
  • Cute animal – nope, not that I noticed.
  • Love interest – well, I’m guessing that things are going to develop between Claire and the adversarial but slightly flirty Lieutenant Rosen but it’s early days at the moment.
  • No gore – check, although there are a couple of descriptions of Mildred’s body.
  • It’s a whodunit – check.

But it doesn’t feel like a cosy mystery – in fact by not including the third point, that really helps. Claire, who narrates the story, has a fine line in sarcastic humour that I found very entertaining, and the plot is really quite clever. It wasn’t obvious to me that there could be a motive for Mildred to have written up the town’s secrets and published them and it was only when the story is revealed that I realised that there was a motive that made sense. It’s a bit of a convoluted plan, but it still makes sense.

The relationship between Claire and Rosen is a good laugh as well and the story builds things up nicely without necessarily following the expected conventions. Ditto the relationship between Claire and her daughter.

Points off for two things –

  • Claire says that bugbear phrase of mine “if this were a detective novel, then … but this is real life” at least twice. Grrrr! And
  • The murderer is revealed as they are caught trying to kill someone rather than their identity being deduced. Maybe in nineteen books time, Claire will have enough experience to work it out instead – although she makes a lot of sensible deductions to be fair.

But it’s a fun read, cleverly plotted and with a very engaging narrator and I’ll certainly be looking at the series and the author again. Highly Recommended.

Oh, and it’s a great title, isn’t it?

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23 comments

  1. Sounds more up my street than the average cosy, although I’m not a fan of just stumbling on the killer.

    It also sounds a lot like “The Sins of Castle Cove”, one of the better episodes of Murder, She Wrote (although there the motive for writing the book was given upfront as spite: the young author thought everyone in the town had bullied her as a child and wanted to humiliate them)

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      • Oh I’m sure it is. MSW suffered from having interesting setups but poor follow-through, especially in the Cabot Cove episodes.

        Although that episode does have my favourite line from the whole series, if only because the writers clearly didn’t notice the potential ambiguity in the sentence! (Unfortunately it’s too rude in British English to reproduce here, even though that’s not why it’s funny.)

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      • Although that episode does have my favourite line from the whole series, if only because the writers clearly didn’t notice the potential ambiguity in the sentence! (Unfortunately it’s too rude in British English to reproduce here, even though that’s not why it’s funny.)

        Oh, come on! You can’t leave us all hanging like this!

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      • Well I can rewrite a little, I guess! So the setup sounds similar to this book: author writes thinly-veiled “fiction” about the residents of Cabot Cove who all get upset, including Jessica’s estate agent friend Eve (who’s in quite a few episodes):

        EVE: Jessica, I have just had the worst experience of my life! Ah, well, I see you’re reading it too.
        JESSICA: Well, actually, l- I’ve- I’ve just started it.
        EVE: I’m sure you will be as disgusted, appalled and horrified as I was. This sort of filth shouldn’t be allowed in print.
        JESSICA: Well, obviously I haven’t got to the good part.
        EVE: How can you joke about it? Suppose this should fall into the hands of innocent children?
        JESSICA: But, Eve, you’ve always been passionately opposed to censorship.
        EVE: Well, this is different, Jessica. Wait until you read about the man-crazy real estate agent who makes a pass at every husband in town.
        JESSICA: Well, surely that’s not you.
        EVE: Well, of course it’s not me… It’s nothing like me… Except for the description of my house, my office and the birthmark on my [bottom], which, incidentally, is on the wrong side.

        Even without the unfortunate Americanism, that’s an extremely serious medical condition!

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      • Many thanks! (I don’t think it’s that rude, even in UK English. I read it out to my lady wife and, after a couple of doses of smelling salts, she was just fine. Really.)

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      • What can I say, I’m inconsistent!

        To be fair, they got reviewed by different standards. No one ever claimed Strangled Prose was the four best locked room mystery of all time. It’s a fun read (to me at least) with some interesting ideas. Whereas Hinge is regularly touted as one of the best locked room mysteries by the best locked room mystery writer. Hence the microscope is somewhat more focused in that case…

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  2. Best wishes, Puzzle Doctor , for the World Puzzle Championship starting on 13th August.
    I don’t think you’ll make a prat of yourself !
    After all, you are a mathematician and you were clever enough to spot the murderer in Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Cracked at the tender age of ten !

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  3. I have several of her books on the shelf and have not gotten around to reading them yet. Just passed one up at a library book sale in Maine, darn! Should have gotten it. Have to get to these books soon!

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