A Clue for the Puzzle Lady (1999) by Parnell Hall

If my memory serves me correctly, I made the comment last year that the 1990s might have been a bit of ‘a dud decade for mystery fiction,’ as none of my reading last year ventured into this time period. In fact a quick search reveals I have only ever reviewed 6 books from this decade on the blog, contrasting with the 130+ reviews I have done for mysteries from the 1930s. I was therefore quite intrigued when I received this book for Christmas.

Intrigued by this book as it has an actual crossword for you to solve in it. Hopefully I will be able to arise to the challenge.

This intrigue continued as I opened the first page, which has a crossword puzzle, the clues of which involve the book’s plot and when completed the puzzle reveals the identity of the killer. Unsurprisingly the writer does suggest doing the puzzle once you’ve read the book. Aside from spoiler issues, this was a good move for me, as I do not have the brain of the Puzzle Doctor, blogger and puzzle solver extraordinaire. If I had to complete the crossword before reading the book, I don’t think I would have got round to reading the book any time soon! However I will add that this mystery is enjoyable for crossword experts and novices alike. Again good news for me.

The book begins with Police Chief Dale Harper being called out to a body found in Bakerhaven cemetery next to a gravestone. The victim is a young girl, who is wearing no socks and shoes and who has an unusual written message in her pocket: ‘4) D – Line (5).’ Death was by a blunt instrument to the head, though the local police doctor keeps this information to himself as long as possible before revealing it to the locals at a community meeting, in order to humiliate Harper. Harper of course has no experience for solving murder cases, yet his incompetence does not make him unlikeable and you feel sympathy for him when figures such as the police doctor and the county prosecutor go out of their way to make him look stupid or inferior. It is a subordinate of Harper who suggests the mystery message in the victim’s pocket might be a crossword clue and he also points Harper in the direction of the puzzle lady, Cora Felton, who is becoming famous for her crossword column. However when the narrative shifts to Felton, the reader is in for a surprise. Felton lives with her niece, Sherry, who is hiding out from her abusive ex-husband and it is actually her who is really good at solving and making crosswords, Cora is merely the face of it all. This of course adds a delightful awkwardness and comedy as Cora and her niece try to hide the fact that Cora is hopeless at crosswords from the police and the public at large. However what Cora lacks in crossword solving, she more than makes up for in amateur sleuthing, which is handy considering that the killer is far from finished killing and sending out further clues…

Overall Thoughts

So first of all I have to say that the 1990s was not such a dud decade for mystery fiction after all. For readers who love a good puzzle, then this is a book I’d strongly recommend. As the title of this book suggests this is a mystery with one heck of a puzzle to unravel and solve. What I admired most about the puzzle of this book is Hall’s adept use of clues and red herrings, making me wonder how much reading of vintage mystery the author has done. There is one piece of misdirection that is absolutely brilliant and did make me laugh out loud.

I can see how this book might be labelled “cozy,” as it avoids being graphic and has the “cozy” habit of all the books in the series have a connecting theme i.e. crosswords in this instance. Yet I wouldn’t say it is a book totally devoid of grit, especially near the end of the book when the case seems to be coming far closer to home than Harper would like. This book does have over 50 chapters, which normally would make any sane reader halt, but thankfully this high chapter volume is down to the book having very short chapters. This did give it a good pace and it also meant the reader could shift from character to character with ease, which was lovely to experience after my last less good read.

Fans of good characterisation will not be disappointed by this book either. Cora is a delight. She is no sensible elderly aunt like Miss Marple, but is far more of a wild child than her niece. In fact our first encounter with Cora is Sherry trying to rouse her from a drunken stupor so she can talk to the police. Yet the drunken/wild side of Cora is not overdone and does not become crass and I enjoyed Cora’s way of not caring what people think about her. There is the beginning of a romance between Sherry and the local news reporter, which starts in the usual love/hate fashion. Yet again this does not monopolise or hamper the plot and instead adds a nice slice of banter to the prose. The ending is perhaps a little rushed, but not badly so and not in reference to the solution itself.

So perhaps there is more to 90s mystery fiction than meets the eye. One definite upside to enjoying and recommending 90s mystery fiction has to be that such works are much more readily available, unlike say Yolanda Foldes’ Mind Your Own Murder (1948), of which there was one copy online at the time of my review and not one since. Amazing book but nigh impossible to find. This is not the case with this book by Hall and I am also pleased that the next few books in the series are also easy to get a hold of, as I am keen to dip back into this series soon.

Rating: 4.25/5

17 comments

  1. I really enjoyed several novels in Hall’s Stanley Hastings series, for their plot and dry humor. I confess to never touching these because of what you describe as the “connecting theme” that marks these as cozies. Plus, I’m also not a whiz at crossword puzzles. Not bad, mind you, but I don’t rush to do the Sunday Times crossword for fear of feeling inadequate. But you have tempted me here, Kate!

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    • Might have to look up Hall’s Hastings series, as not come across it. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. I think if you’ve enjoyed Hall’s other work then this series would equally be enjoyable as I really didn’t find it excessively cozy, nor did I feel bored or befuddled by the crossword elements.

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  2. I saw that you were going to review this one and I looked forward to it because I have been wondering what these books were like. My husband is reading his way (slowly) through Parnell Hall’s Stanley Hastings series that Brad mentions and I have read the first one. I did not know if the Puzzle Lady series would be too cozy for me. So this is good news, maybe I will give them a try. Not that I need more mysteries to try.

    I love mysteries from the 1990s (and also mysteries from the 1930s). The 1990s was before mysteries became saturated with technology.

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      • Jill McGown would be my top recommendation. Then S.J. Rozan, Caroline Graham, Peter Lovesey. Jane Haddam was still writing until 2014 but her 1990s books are my favorites. Also Peter Dickinson, Cynthia Harrod-Eagles (earlier books in the Bill Slider series are my favorites), John Harvey, Reginald Hill.

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      • Quite a few of those authors are familiar by name, but not tried any. I think I tend to associate them more with more modern police procedurals, which are not really my thing. Do any of these authors branch away from that type of mystery at all?

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      • You are right, most of those authors do write police procedurals and I realized that as I was coming up with names. I do like police procedurals (obviously) so that may be why I like that decade. Although really any decade between 1930 and 2000 has a lot to offer in crime fiction (for me).

        S. J. Rozan’s series is about a private investigator (female) in New York Chinatown, and a male P.I. she occasionally works with. I love that series. Book one is told from her point of view, book two from his point of view and so on.

        Jane Haddam’s series are not really procedurals because Demarkian is an ex-FBI agent who consults with police and they are very unlike any police procedural I have ever read. I hesitate to push them too much because they are the love them or hate them type of books and I think some reviewers complain that they are not fair play.

        Other possibilities that I did not mention and not police procedural: Lawrence Block; Martin Edward’s Harry Devlin series.

        Sorry to go on but it was fun.

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  3. Looks like you are having a 1990s spree, with this novel and then Jennifer Rowe’s after that. A shame that my local Kindle store has quite a few of the Puzzle Lady novels – but not this one.

    What made you comment that the 1990s was a ‘dud decade’ for the mystery novel?

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    • Kindle really doesn’t like the books I review does it? I think I called the 1990s a dud decade for mystery fiction because it felt like I couldn’t name any big names from the decade and when I do come across big names from the decade they are more often than not, writers I don’t enjoy. The 90s seemed to be part of the transition into modern mystery/police procedural fiction which I don’t hugely enjoy as well. But I am glad there are some exceptions to the rule.

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      • To be fair, I’ve purchased a handful of books from my local Kindle store off the back of your reviews. In particular, I was pleased that the Masterman novel you rated so highly in January was available; I’m still feeling slightly sore about the Yolanda Foldes novel.

        P.S. My copy of ‘Dead Men Don’t Ski’ just arrived!

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  4. Nice review, sounds very interesting. I’m not a whizz at crossword puzzles but love them anyway, even as I’m bashing my head against the wall. It makes *finally* getting two down – Perused a fish I hear? That’ll confuse things (3,7) – all the more satisfying.

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  5. American crosswords (which is what you will find in this series) are a hundred times easier than British crosswords which have ridiculous anagrams, puns, and other tricky word games built into the clueing. Even with knowing all the arcane rules for deciphering the clues I’ve never been able to finish a British-style crossword when I’ve stumbled across one over here. However…. “Perused a fish, I hear…” is a piece of cake. Kate, as a fan of the L. C. Tyler books you should be able to figure that one out easily.

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