Saturday, December 14, 2013

Cooking Up Christmas in Cozy Mysteries: Leslie Meier, Isis Crawford

It's the Holiday season, and America's cultural connection with Christmas drives the calendar right now. Here's a to-do list that frankly terrifies me, courtesy of and brought to my attention in the Facebook posts of a new Vermont thriller author, J.P. Choquette:

I love J.P.'s idea that getting more organized will be satisfying. But what I want to get done before the big C celebration day is -- review more mysteries! And sample more cookies.

Here's a pair of cozy treats from two steady writers whose public personas are modest (they clearly prefer to stick to writing their mysteries instead!).

Isis Crawford is the pen name of Syracuse, NY, Barbara Block, and she offers a different series under each name. The Isis Crawford series has titles that all start with "A Catered" -- reflecting the author's life experience, ongoing, as a caterer specializing in desserts. A CATERED CHRISTMAS COOKIE EXCHANGE features sisters Bernie and Libby, owners of the bakery A Little Taste of Heaven. When their friend Amber's Aunt Millie winds up in a coma at the hospital as a result of a car accident, Bernie and Libby of course are worried for Millie; Aunt Millie was about to take part in a cookie competition that would be televised, as part of a reality TV series. What a shame she won't be able to be on camera! But her niece Amber could be, right? With Millie's cookies that she'd just baked before the accident?

Except ... the cookies are missing. And when Bernie and Libby investigate the scene of the accident, they're quickly convinced it was intentional, and their father, a retired police detective, backs up their theory. Who sets up an accident over cookies? And was it meant to be murder??

The plot twists here fly fast and furious. What I particularly enjoyed was the wry relationship of the sister bakers-turned-investigators -- if my sis and I were checking out a possible crime, we'd have a lot of the same frictions that these two have. I had a lot of fun reading this. And if the final chapter comes off a bit hasty in tying all the threads together, well, I still plan to indulge by reading the earlier eight Isis Crawford catering mysteries, and giving them with love to my sister.

Plus there are recipes at the end of the book, including "Italian Christmas Cookies." So, does reading this one count as crossing off an item on my holiday preparations list??

Leslie Meier is a little less "hidden" as an author than Isis Crawford (Crawford has no website, makes no Facebook posts to speak of), but Meier still rarely updates her website and makes few book-related appearances. I always enjoy her books -- she lives in Harwich, Mass., but sets the Lucy Stone series in "Tinker's Cove," Maine, a town so small that the local newspaper is a weekly instead of a daily. Lucy Stone is the news reporter for the tiny paper (her boss is the editor, and there's one more person on staff, to run the office). Her investigations always tangle family issues -- her kids are pretty much grown now, in CHRISTMAS CAROL MURDER -- and community quirks, as well as crime.  I can vouch for the accuracy of the small-town news life that Lucy Stone lives!

This 2013 title is full of delicious puns and coincidences related to the Dickens holiday tale, as the first page opens with miserly "Jake Marlowe" planning to evict more out-of-work homeowners, regardless of their family pain and the holiday season, and make a killing on the real estate market for Maine seacoast properties.

But Marlowe's soon to be a ghost, and Lucy, fuming at what Marlowe's been doing and his current partner's continuing business practices, tackles the details of a news story that rapidly turns into an investigation. Meier twists the fun even higher by putting Lucy into the cast of an amateur theatrical performance of "A Christmas Carol" and adding to the list of possible suspects with costumes and slippery alibis.

No recipes in this one (sigh) but plenty of cheery community spirit, clever reflection on how the American economy lately echoes the Scrooge tale, and the brisk pace of a seasoned storyteller: Meier knows how to place her "amateur sleuth" in just the right degree of trouble to ramp up the tension, but still leave room for that friendly warmth that a traditional cozy mystery carried with it. Recommended for a relaxing holiday read, with a couple of messages that linger afterward like a good holiday feast.

No need to have the earlier Lucy Stone mysteries under your belt to enjoy this one -- each is a good stand-alone. And CHRISTMAS CAROL MURDER will make a dandy last-minute gift, too, especially for anyone who tends to quote either Scrooge or Tiny Tim!

PS -- Both of these are from Kensington Books (thanks for the review copies!) and add proof to what I mentioned earlier this season: Kensington is skillfully investing in a wide range of mysteries, from cozy to dark, and the rapidly expanding list of their books is a delight.

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