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.
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…
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.