The opening of FOGGED INN is especially intriguing, as Julia and her boyfriend Chris roll slowly awake, hearing their friend and landlord Gus bellowing up to their bedroom, just a few hours after they've finally gotten to sleep. And what Gus is saying isn't going to start the day all that well: "There's a dead guy in my walk-in refrigerator. You leave him there?"
No, neither Julia nor Chris knew about a dead man in the downstairs restaurant. But considering the night they just had -- which we'll only find out about gradually -- it all seems to fit together, in a creepy way.
Because actually, as Julia is just starting to realize, the dinner guests she and Chris had served the night before were all very uncomfortable about being at the newly opened dinner spot on the same evening. Trapped in place by an accident outside, in the seacoast fog, the guests still revealed little of why they stayed so firmly spaced apart in the little dining area. And soon it's apparent that someone else wanted those couples to show up on this night, maneuvering them through clever use of gift certificates with an added expiration date.
Julia has the same problem facing many another amateur sleuth: The local police are getting annoyed with the way murder seems to prod her into doing her own investigating. At least this time Chris and Gus are behind her, though:
"I keep thinking about that guy in the walk-in, going over and over what everyone said and did that night. I'm convinced the couples in the restaurant were brought there that night for a reason, even though they all said they didn't know the dead guy or each other when they talked to the cops. While [the local police] are in Augusta today, I want to check a few things out," I said.Readers of the series already know that Julia and Chris might be meant for each other, but had a lot of trouble getting to the love-and-live-together stage. The friction of another murder in their lives and of the secrets each keeps "protecting" ramps the pressure up on their relationship. Luckily, the murder itself isn't related to Julia's family this time, or to Chris's past -- but the more that Julia tugs on the threads of evidence and connection, the more it seems to involve a lot of the town of Busman's Harbor, Maine. And her actions incite further threats and risk.
"That's the spirit," Gus shouted from the other side of the room. "Solve this mystery, get rid of that damn yellow tape." He gestured toward the walk-in. "Life goes back to normal."
Chris didn't repeat his caution about leaving things to the professionals.
Ross's writing reaches far beyond the casual level you might expect in a "cozy" mystery with a cat on the cover. Her clever structure for gradual revelations at the start intrigued me, the pace is excellent, and when the twists arrive -- and oh wow, do they! -- they fit the perfect combination of being unexpected but, in hindsight, an excellent match with how the plot and characters pull against each other.
By all means, read the preceding titles if you have a chance -- they're enjoyable, and well plotted. But if you only have time for one Barbara Ross mystery this month, grab a copy of FOGGED INN next week (publisher release date is Feb. 23). It's solid evidence of an author who's advancing her strength as a mystery author through seasoned understanding of the worst people can do ... and of the good ways in which others grow, to see justice served and make sure there's more good in the world.
Of course, it doesn't hurt that the setting -- the Maine seacoast -- turns each of Ross's books into a mini-vacation for those of us outside Maine! Thanks also to Barb Ross and her white-aproned husband for the enjoyable recipes at the back of the book, and to Kensington Books for giving this series room to grow.