by Cynthia Chow
& Sandra Murphy
As we try and catch up on some of our mystery book reviews for Penguin, we are sharing this week three books that came out in April: End Me A Tenor by Joelle Charbonneau, That Old Flame of Mine by J.J. Cook & Malled To Death by Laura Disilverio. You can enter to win all three books to add to your summer reading fun-details at the end of this post.
End Me a Tenor: A Glee Club Mystery by Joelle Charbonneau
Review by Cynthia Chow
I admit it. I absolutely loved the first two seasons of Glee, I have two of their CDs downloaded on my phone, and Pitch Perfect was one of my favorite movies of the last year. However, even I had a few trepidations of how a murder mystery could be interwoven into an environment where song mash-ups should have been the greatest objects of contention without it being a hook to simply jump on the current popularity of singing competitions.
I need not have worried. In this second of the Glee Club series author Charbonneau places a murder in the midst of two of the most competitive and cutthroat arenas: professional theater and the university academia. Paige Marshall has been coaching Prospect Glen’s high school show choir and teaching private singing lessons while awaiting her big break as an opera singer. That opportunity arises with her being cast in the professional production of Messiah along with the renowned tenor David Richard, a gifted performer and visiting Northwestern University instructor with a repulsive personality. It is unfortunate that just after she literally bumps into him the cast witnesses the horrific sight of David dropping dead from a poisoning. Even more abhorrent is that Paige had nearly switched water bottles with the temperamental tenor, not only risking her own death but leaving her fingerprints on the murder weapon.
After almost getting herself killed when she previously attempted to help a student falsely accused of murder, Paige would prefer to stay on the sidelines and let the police conduct the investigation. However, when the conductor is taken into custody and the Messiah production is put in jeopardy Paige is spurred into action as much as to ensure that the show goes on as to prevent an innocent woman from being prosecuted. Paige receives help from her well-connected Mary Kay maven Aunt Millie and much more reluctant aid from Michael Kaiser, a cocky detective who delivers tantalizing kisses that are immediately negated by the obnoxious words that usually follow them. This would have less of an impact on Paige’s emotions if she hadn’t been getting tired of hiding her relationship with theater teacher Devlyn O’Shea, who hides his heterosexuality from predatory female students and any hint of impropriety behind a wardrobe of pastels and flamboyant behavior. Only after Paige is left a threatening gift warning her off she does enlist Devlyn in tackling one of the most terrifying places on earth to pursue her investigation; Toys R Us two weeks before Christmas.
Just as intriguing as the behind-the-scene machinations of an opera performance is Paige’s maturation and growth as she comes to take pride in a job that she originally took solely to earn a paycheck. Although she never really wanted to be a show choir coach seeing the students succeed and perform brilliantly fills her with joy. Paige also finds that gaining approval from the students matters just as much to her as the approval of her employing school board which becomes evident when a malicious Secret Santa gift sends her into near tears after presuming that she was finally gaining acceptance from her choir. Readers will enjoy watching Paige excel at both her performances and her teaching, and she shows strength in standing up to demanding parents and suspects alike. A stage performer and voice teacher herself, Charbonneau allows her experience to shine through in this fun and very funny unique mystery novel.
Check out a review of the first book in this series.
That Old Flame of Mine: a Sweet Pepper Fire Brigade Mystery By J.J. Cook
Review by Cynthia Chow
“This is Sweet Pepper, darlin’, where the peppers are hot and sweet and the gossip flows like moonshine.”
The Tennessee Black Mountains town of Sweet Pepper, population 5,245, seemed like the perfect working vacation for fire fighter Stella Griffin after a shoulder injury and her decking her cheating policeman boyfriend resulted in her being encouraged to get out of Chicago until the heat died down. Sweet Pepper had been without a fire brigade and relying on outside counties for decades, but now the city council decided that they needed a temporary fire chief to train their new volunteers until a permanent chief could be named. Additional enticements to the job are food goodies delivered daily, home cleaning, and the cabin formerly built and resided in by the previous fire chief from over forty years ago. What Stella wasn’t prepared for was that the ghost of Chief Eric Gamlyn had decided to stick around.
While the first run through by her tiny fire fighting team goes a little less than perfectly, their next fire is far more devastating as it ends with the discovery of the body of the homeowner, Victory “Tory” Lambert, one of Stella’s strongest supporters and who had recently asked Stella to look into the details of the death of Tory’s first husband, Adam. Tory never believed that Adam’s death was accidental as he had given up smoking and even the cigarettes found at the scene were of the wrong brand. With Tory herself now a victim of a fire Stella can’t help but question both deaths despite the adamant declarations by the police chief Don Rogers, who was against Stella’s hiring even before she began questioning his investigations. Stella does have the support of her volunteers and especially police officer John Trump who makes no secret of his admiration for the red-headed fire chief.
The investigation, her budding relationship, and her peace of mind all becomes unsettled by two shocking discoveries; first, that her mother had for Stella’s entire life hidden their connection to the town, and second, that the ghost of Eric Gamlyn has the ability to speak, move things, and insert his very opinionated viewpoints concerning Stella’s involvement in the deaths and the fire brigade.
What is refreshing is that Stella takes a surprisingly rational approach to the discovery that her cabin may be haunted. First diagnosing that the malfunctioning lights and power is due to poor wiring (or snakes in the wiring) she moves out to the town’s lovely bed and breakfast. Once the cabin is cleared but the events continue along with the commencement of very vocal opinions, as the veteran of fire department hazings Stella assumes that they are the result of a practical joke and refuses to back down. Only her inability to detect any prankster and the town’s seemingly casual acceptance that Eric’s ghost haunts the cabin finally convinces Stella that the ghost is real and she begins to accept Eric’s advice and considerable fire-fighting experience.
The extraordinarily prolific writing team of Jim and Joyce Lavene author this book under the name J.J. Cook and they continue to display their skill at creating casts of characters with quirky but realistic personalities. As the sister of a fire fighter, I found the details of the fire brigade’s duties as well as their investigations both fascinating and well researched. The growing romance between Stella and John is both charming and frustrating as his prejudices towards the town’s most powerful family so clouds his judgment that the reader does occasionally feel the inclination to bop him on the head. What’s a good cozy mystery without recipes, and as guest judge for the chocolate division of the Sweet Pepper Festival celebrating the town’s famous and world-renown hot and sweet peppers Stella has the opportunity to dress up and taste spicy pepper brownies, candied peppers, and even pepper spice coffee. This highly entertaining read ends on a note that foretells a very complicated future for Stella and ensures that her adventures will not end anytime soon, which is definitely a bonus for fans of cozy mysteries with a touch of spectral insight.
Malled to Death by Laura Disilverio
Review by Sandra Murphy
EJ Ferris is a mall cop. She likes her job, the people who work at the mall and the people who shop there. She’d rather be a cop but an IED in Afghanistan put an obstacle on that path, at least until something can be done to strengthen her injured leg.
EJ’s dad is a famous action movie star and always ready to help EJ, whether she wants him to or not. His plan this time around is to film his latest movie at Fernglen Galleria. He’ll get to spend time with EJ, although not many people know he’s her father (it wouldn’t do for an actor to have such an adult child), and EJ will get to see what fun it is to make movies and give up the silly idea she can return to police work. Instead, she could be a….producer!
The movie certainly draws in the shoppers who want to catch a glimpse of famous stars, get walk on parts and generally be around fame and fortune. It’s also created a lot of headaches—like the female lead’s ear piercing screams, an accidental gunshot (a blank), and numerous extras dressed as cops mixed in with the mall cops and after an unfortunate murder, real cops. That includes Detective Helland. EJ’s worked with/around him on previous murders but still gets no respect.
The usual characters are there from previous books and as good or better than ever. Grandpa Atherton is in full form, since the danger seems to revolve around his daughter aka EJ’s mom. The new security boss is Coco MacMillan who seems to think she aced the job interview when she mentioned redesigning the too-practical-to-be-fashion mall cop uniform. Joel is on the verge of quitting, as he can’t see himself wearing a pillbox hat with an elastic chinstrap or a spandex cat suit.
Pretty much everyone in the cast has received a threatening letter. One is murdered but was it for a personal reason or work related? And was there by any chance, something more to her relationship with EJ’s dad? Add to the mix, stalker-type letters to dear old dad and more than one inquiring mind wants to know if the studly actor is true to his marriage vows or a really good actor.
There’s a lot of action, side plots that may or may not be part of the original murder, great character development and a couple of teasers. Detective Helland seems to be warming toward EJ but then Jay, the cookie man, well, let’s just say the temps there are much hotter. I foresee a little torn-between-two-choices coming up in future books.
Although I didn’t know who committed the murder, I was headed in the right direction to find out and that’s the way I like mysteries. Give enough clues to keep me thinking and not so many as to let slip the ending.
Speaking of endings, Dad has realized producer isn’t the best fit for EJ. That’s a good thing, right? Well, yes, but he has another idea….. And it makes another complication.
Previous books in the series, which is best read in order, include:
Die Buying, All Sales Final
To enter to win a copy of all 3 Penguin mysteries, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “Summer,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen June 1, 2013. U.S. residents only.
More mystery reviews, short stories, articles and giveaways can be found in this issue, and those and others can be found in our mystery section.