by Cynthia Chow
& Lillian Bell
This week we have something a bit different-a review of A Grave Issue, a Funeral Parlor Mystery by Lillian Bell, and a guest post by Lillian on why she chose such an unusual setting. Details at the end of this post on how to enter to win a copy of A Grave Issue, and a link to purchase it from Amazon and an indie bookstore where a portion goes to help support KRL.
A Grave Issue: A Funeral Parlor Mystery by Lillian Bell
Review by Cynthia Chow
It was the Emu’s fault. That’s the first thought that came to mind when Desiree Turner heard the news that prominent businessman and Verbena Union Bank manager Alan Turner had been shot to death while collecting eggs from his chicken coop. The death of his and his wife’s Emu Vincent had been a lawsuit-worthy bone of contention between them and their neighbors, leading police to suspect Kyle Hansen of the murder. Desiree had in fact been a witness to the brawl between wives at the Turner Family Funeral Home, but she refuses to believe that her surrogate father could ever become a killer.
A hot mic and a comment taken out of context cost Desiree Turner her job as an on-air reporter for a Los Angeles television station, which led her back home to Central Valley California to lick her wounds. She and her sister are still mourning the recent loss of their father due to a surfing accident, but Desiree is stepping up to reluctantly take over duties at the family funeral home she fled. Being back in Verbena stirs up all of Desiree’s memories and emotions, not to mention her loathed nickname, “Death Ray.” Desiree finds herself involuntarily becoming the highlighted feature of the Verbena Free Press, due as much as to the editor’s crush-like fascination as with her inability to avoid widows throwing themselves into caskets, bomb attacks, or knockdown battles at funerals.
I absolutely adored this debut series featuring the acerbic and sharp-witted Desiree Turner. Her observations as chaos ensues around her are hilarious, contrasted by the often nonplussed reactions long-time Verbenans. This is a town where the defending attorney is not only a former PTA president, but she brings cookies to the hearing. The dialogue is smart and the action well-plotted, making the characters come alive with believable histories and backstories. Chapter-starting articles clipped from the Verbena Free Press may infuriate Desiree, but they are deceptively clever in their observations. Desiree is somewhat oblivious to the suitors tentatively circling around her, especially as she becomes focused on the murder investigation and fate of her father. Details regarding funeral planning are depicted in the background, emphasizing the care and respect given while never sacrificing any of the humor. This is an endlessly fun mystery, and an outstanding start to a new series.
Why a Funeral Parlor?
By Lillian Bell
People have been asking me why set a mystery series in a funeral parlor.
There’s an easy and obvious answer to that question: access to dead bodies. They’re all over the average funeral parlor. At least, they are in one that’s staying in business. One of the problems many cozy mystery authors face is how to keep their amateur detective characters stumbling across murder victims. People call it the Cabot Cove Syndrome, after the town in which the TV series Murder, She Wrote took place. The show ran for twelve seasons. That’s a lot of dead bodies piling up in one seaside New England town! I believe some people have posited the theory that Jessica Fletcher, the main character of the show, was actually an extremely clever serial killer, managing to frame others for her dastardly deeds while seeming like an innocent author.
Like most easy and obvious answers, though, it’s not whole truth. Sure. It solves that one problem, but I think a lot of cozy mystery readers grant us that one anyway. After all, if they didn’t want to read about an amateur detective solving murder mysteries, they’d probably be picking up a different kind of book.
The real answers (are there ever really only one?) to that question lie a lot deeper in my heart.
Unfortunately, like most close knit families, mine has had to say good-bye to many people we loved and revered. The kindness and respect shown to us by the professionals we dealt with as we made final arrangements have led me to appreciate funeral parlor personnel. They are, by and large, good people. Really good people. I always want my main character to be a good person. Flawed, but good. That meant there was already a pool of good people to choose from in the funeral parlor setting to base characters on.
That doesn’t mean that all those people were great at their jobs, though. There is a moment that my family pretty much never brings up around me. The funeral home delivered my husband’s ashes to me with the wrong dates engraved on his urn. To say that I eviscerated that poor funeral director with my words is probably an understatement. I know now that much of that invective had more to do with my grief than actual anger. At the time, however, I was nearly incandescent in my rage. The man never protested, never argued back, never did anything but apologize. They might not have been great at getting the details right on engravings, but they did know how to deal with a traumatized and grieving widow. Gotta give them points for that. With some distance, it also gave me a little window into what it would be like for a character that meant well, but didn’t always quite live up to the mark she set for herself. That’s a rich area for a novelist.
It also leads me to the next reason a funeral parlor seemed like a great place to set a series of books. There’s little more dramatic than death. A typo in a letter or an invitation or a sign might be upsetting, but it is unlikely to have created the kind of scene I made when I saw that urn.
Everything around a person’s death is raised to great heights of emotion. There’s not much more fertile ground when you’re planning a book.
Then there are the unexpected turns a death can create. People don’t always react as expected. Loving families have been known to turn on each other as emotions get high. I’ve seen the opposite, too, though. Someone I know (I’m not naming names here) whose family didn’t really get along had to deal with the very sudden and unexpected death of their patriarch. I was braced for fireworks as I watched from the sidelines. They never came. Instead of jealousy or animosity or just plain dislike of each other, they treated each other with respect and kindness. Totally unexpected, but fascinating for someone who is always trying to find out why people do what they do. Deep emotions tend to burble to the surface in these situations. Again, what more could a writer want?
So with a funeral parlor setting, I had plenty of dead bodies around, good people to base characters on, lots of drama, and unexpected twists and turns. I ended up wondering why everyone wasn’t having their books take place in a funeral parlor.
To enter to win a copy of A Grave Issue, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “issue,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen March 10, 2018. U.S. residents only. If entering via email please include your mailing address, and if via comment please include your email address.
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