Death in Store (1993) by Jennifer Rowe

This is an Australian mystery series I have been chipping away at for a while now and it is one which is ideal in many respects for the vintage crime fan, as Rowe has a firm grasp on how to craft an interesting puzzle. Interestingly this is not another novel in the series, but a short story collection; a fact I didn’t realise until I had finished what I believed to be the first chapter. Yep that’s how good my concentration is at the moment. Probably a good thing I wasn’t tackling a whole novel.

Forbidden Fruit

This story has the wider narrative frame of Verity Birdwood or “Birdie” as she tends to get called telling DS Dan Toby, late on Christmas Eve, of the time she solved her first murder when she was 14. It was the death of her next door neighbour at the local Christmas party. Toby is unconvinced but of course by the end of her story she has proven her sleuthing credentials. It is an interesting case due to the role accident/fate plays in the final outcome. This story is also interesting in that we get to learn more about Birdie as person and her ‘pretty funny hobby’ of solving crimes. For her she sees it as a better, more charged up version of ‘brainteasers or chess,’ because as Toby says it involves actual people and ‘not just a game’. It’s at moments like this that readers are reminded of the steely nature beneath Birdie’s diminutive appearance. Toby hits the nail on the head in a later story when he says that Birdie was a ‘funny looking little mouse,’ yet ‘was as cold-hearted as a snake when it came to this sort of situation,’ the situation of course being murder.

Rabbit Killer

In this story Birdie has been asked by an old school acquaintance to prove the innocence of her brother who has been accused of murdering a woman he had argued with over a piece of working he was doing at her home. The evidence doesn’t look great for him, but inevitability Birdie turns everything upside down, not least for the reader themselves, as Rowe properly pulled the rug from under my feet when it came to the killer’s identity, with some very sneaky clues.

Death Warmed Up

Birdie in this tale has to put up with being dragged by her friend for a day on the beach, though things do look up for her when it turns out a woman has been poisoned, a woman who just so happens to fulfil the role of wicked stepmother rather well. Timings are crucial in this case, with a well-prepared surprise at the end. I say well-prepared not in the sense that the surprise was expected, but that in retrospect you can see the evidence for it.

Flashpoint

Rowe again uses an external narrative frame to introduce the reader to the central mystery, this time having the husband of Birdie’s friend listen to what has been happening whilst he has been away. The case in this book focuses on Juliette Nimmo, a local girl who has now become a big film star, with the resultant fame definitely going to her head. I wouldn’t say this tale is as well clued as the stories which precede it, but the writer has a good eye for capturing the paparazzi milieu.

Death in Ruby

There is a similar reduction in cluing in this tale as well, which is a shame given the nature of the solution. This time Birdie is off to interview a man who is selling up his farm due to the drought. However this is soon revealed to be a cover for finding out more about a recent attack which took place on the property. Old sins definitely cast long shadows in this piece and I just wish it had had more overt clues in place, as the twists are pleasing ones.

Roses for Do-Hoppy

In this story Birdie investigates the murder of Do-Hoppy a newspaper seller. The police presume it was a drug addict and have little belief they will find the perpetrator, but Birdie has different ideas as you will imagine.

Ladies’ Day

Birdie is narrating another past experience, this time to her friend Kate, to prove the point that women can be just as aggressive as men, even if it comes out in different ways. She certainly makes her case when she tells us of what a mutual but not too close friend did when she found out her husband was having an affair. It is not just Birdie who is on edge when the woman announces a luncheon for her female friends, as well as the other woman her husband was having an affair with, since she was also in their social circle. Suffice to say it is the world’s most tense meal and Rowe has fun setting off a number of false alarms, over what the wife is planning. The ending is a satisfying one and is the writer’s best in the collection for psychological suspense.

Death in Store

The final story in the collection returns us to Christmas and Kate is taking her daughter to Zoe to visit Santa. Birdie is also at the department store doing research for an up and coming TV programme, a job she is landed with because everyone is on holiday. Some comedy ensues due to Birdie’s less than positive response to Christmas and its commercial aspects. Tension in the store centres on the manager and the store’s Santa, with both of these characters being unpopular with the rest of the staff. So it should not come as a surprise when Santa is found dead in his grotto the next morning. This was an enjoyable end to the collection and the comedy delivered through the child character was well done.

Rating: 4.25/5 (If was just on cluing alone I would plum for a 4/5, but the appealing nature of the central protagonist bumped up the rating slightly).

Calendar of Crime: December (4) Christmas

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