Saturday, January 29, 2011

Review: A Taste for Murder, and A Dash of Death, by Claudia Bishop

A Taste for Murder by Claudia Bishop:
The statue of the man and his horse had been erected in 1868, two hundred years after the founding of the village. Something had gone awry in the casting process, and the General's face had a wrinkled brow and half-open mouth, leaving him with a permanently pained expression as he sat in the saddle. On occasion, roving hordes of Cornell students on spring break heaped boxes of hemorrhoid remedies at the statue's base, which sent the mayor into fits. Most years the statue sat detritus-free, except for the six-foot heap of cobble stones piled at the foot and used to crush the witch each year.
Synopsis: Innkeeper Sarah Quilliam and her sister must find out who ruined History Days for the town of Hemlock Falls, NY, when an unpleasant guest from the inn is squashed flat in front of a cast of thousands.

Earlier this year I read (and loved) Toast Mortem, the 16th entry in the Hemlock Falls mystery series. I'd tried, years ago, to get into this series and hated it, but have since revised my stance, based on that one book. That's right: I was wrong. I really dig this series.

The Quilliam sisters, Sarah and Meg, run the Inn at Hemlock Falls, a tiny town in upstate New York with a quirky cast of tens. Sarah, the innkeeper, sits on the City Council and is frequently pressganged into volunteering by the other council members. Case in point: she winds up volunteered to get squashed flat at the upcoming History Days, a festival that culminates in the re-enactment of Hemlock Falls' witch-hatin' days. Good call, City Council!

However, Sarah neatly ducks out of it by wrangling in an unpleasant guest who used to be a singing hot dog and now may or may not know who embezzled $300K from the hot dog people. On the day of the big event, however, it's the guest and not her ersatz mannequin who is squashed flat by the bloodthirsty re-enactors of Hemlock Falls. Enter Sarah and, when she's not busy throwing things at passersby, her chef sister Meg, who jump on solving the case.

It's not a bad book at all. I think my quibble with it the first time around is that the City Council members are just so darn mean to Sarah and she just sits there and takes it, which drove me crazy. Now, much less so. And, as a bonus, I totally did not remember I'd read this whole book through, so the ending came as a total surprise YET AGAIN. Three cheers for memory loss, y'all.

Berkley Prime Crime has released the first four books in the Hemlock Falls mystery series as two trade-paperback sized volumes which I am inordinately fond of. They have a nice heft to them, and prop up well on pillows. So of course I kept on reading, A Dash of Death, the second mystery in the series. Which I'd never read.

Okay in point of fact I stayed up til 5am reading it, because I couldn't put it down. So good. It really feels like there's a jump in quality from book 1 to book 2, and I just plopped down with the dogs and read it all the way through. Phenomenally good, even though this time I did guess the murderer correctly about a quarter of the way through.

Of the plot to the second one, I am simply going to leave you with the following quote from the book:

Quill found her patience wearing thin. "Harvey, if the town really insists on doing this, don't you think we should open it to little boys, too?" Neither man looked at her, which told Quill they'd discussed the possibility that she would bring it up.

"Women's lib," said Elmer. "Well, I guess we got to consider you feminists. Now, I'm all for women's lib, Quill, or should I say -- (this with heavy jocularity) -- "Ms. Quilliam, but I don't know as how we could get the town to support a beauty contest for boys. Now, if we had a category like Best Little Fisherman, or Best Little, I dunno, some more boy-like thing..."

"Best Little Bow Hunter?" Quill heard herself say. "Best Little Sport with a Shotgun? Best little penis?"

"Oh, my God," said Elmer.

"It's the gunshot wound," said Harvey. "Saw a lot of it with 'Nam."

"Harvey, you were never in 'Nam," said Elmer, "not even close."

"I didn't say 'in' 'Nam, I said 'with' 'Nam."

"Ayuh. You know what you need, Quill? A nice cup of coffee or something."

Quill went into the kitchen to get a nice cup of coffee or something.

"I'm losing it," she told her sister. "It's the gallery business all over again. One-way trips to remote mountain areas are starting to look attractive."

"Explain," said Meg.

Meg demonstrated the proper degree of outrage over the Little Miss Hemlock Falls Beauty Contest, loyally endorsed Quill's proposed category, and immediately began preparing cappuccino as a restorative.

It goes without saying that both books pass the Bechdel Test with flying colors. It's like if Elizabeth Bowen had taken up writing mysteries. And if that doesn't convince you, nothing will.

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