Saturday, December 3, 2011

Review: "Deathday Party" (1999)

"Like I said, people who are careless with their gardening can't be trusted. You just never know what they have in their background. That's why we've got to get out of here, Jane, dear. I am not used to this kind of thing, you know."

"Well, if it makes you feel any better, neither am I. I mean, it's been years since anyone, excuse me, anything tried to impale me with pruning shears."

Synopsis: Southern decorating belle Hillary and her fish-out-of-water assistant Jane agree to cater a party for an eccentric Gothic family, but get trapped at the house by a storm. Then bodies start cropping up everywhere except the family cemetery. It's just that kind of party.

Grade: A-

While this book's technically the second of Carter's Decorating Duo of Deduction series (#1 was Leading an Elegant Death and #3 is Red Wine Goes with Murder) it's all about catering and includes a recipe, so I'm cheerfully including it here.

Broke single mother and California transplant Jane Ferguson takes a job with Hillary Scarborough, the Martha Stewart of the South, despite not knowing a glue gun from a frosting bag. Still growing accustomed to Southern eccentricities, Jane still boggles at their latest catering job: a birthday party for America Elizabeth Bean, a dead woman renowned for having killed someone who may or may not already be dead. But when a storm traps Jane and Hillary at the Bean mansion, they find their hostess dead but unable to stay in her coffin. More bodies follow suit, none of them in the family cemetery, however. And why does the local gas station attendant look just like the telephone repairman and an out-of-town preacher called in to do the honors at the party?

Cozies by now have a ton of tropes attached to them: the amateur sleuth with the failed love life, usually including a terrible ex-husband and a burgeoning relationship with the local lawman (check, check); a sassy sidekick less skilled at detecting (check); and a small town or family full of secrets (check). Bonus points if one of the sleuthing duo is a terrible driver (yup, check).

But there were two things that made this mystery really work for me. One, the banter between Jane and Hillary is phenomenal without straining credulity (a lot like the best of Mary Daheim's Judith McGonigal-Flynn and her cousin Renie) and contains a handful of laugh-out-loud moments.

The other was that one of the biggest cozy tropes, that the amateur detective is usually also a harried mother and failed domestic doyenne here is done to perfection. While Hillary's perfection in these areas highlights Jane's flaws Jane never lets it cow her and she stands up to Hillary repeatedly. You get to see how her detection skills more than make up for all the dust bunnies on her rugs.

I am deeply suspicious of amateur sleuths who have everything pulled together and still manage to have flawless hair, eyes the color of farting cornflowers and "comfortably rounded" figures. Dude, give me the whip-smart, unbrushed, covered-in-cat-hair detectives any day of the week.

I suspect part of the popularity of the Harried Amateur is commentary on the backlash against women who entered the workplace in large numbers during the late 70s and 80s. Hear me out: so many cozies that feature these women were also written by female authors, who en masse, have the effect of saying, look, I may not be the Angel of the Household, but my intelligence more than makes up for that.

Which has nothing to do with food. :)

One recipe included in the book, Hillary's Brandy Sauce, which sounds awesome. I did wish for the recipe for Hillary's pecan and cranberry quickbread, as well as more of a focus on what she recommends the Beans serve at their deathday party as a type of clue to funeral meats and traditions and whatnot, but I wasn't sorry at all that the omission of those things came at the cost of more plot and a slightly madcap dash around a modern-day House of Usher. Highly recommended.