Friday, June 10, 2016

New England Author Edith Maxwell and Two Fresh Mysteries

One of the most remarkable mystery authors in New England is Edith Maxwell, who brought out THREE books in the past few weeks.

Maxwell lives in coastal Massachusetts, north of Boston, and began her mystery-writing career with several manuscripts at once. The first to be published, in 2012, was Speaking of Murder, featuring linguist Lauren Rousseau and released under a pen name, Tace Baker. Her "Local Foods Mysteries" began seeing print in 2013, starting with A Tine to Live, a Tine to Die, under her own name, Edith Maxwell. Maxwell's "Country Store Mysteries" started in 2015 with the nom de plume Maddie Day, and a fourth (!) series, her "Quaker Midwife Mysteries," launched this past April, again under the name Edith Maxwell. It's a challenge to keep up with her (reviews here!), and a delight.

I just devoured her two newest titles, GRILLED FOR MURDER (Country Store, protagonist Roberta -- better known as Robbie -- Jordon; author name Maddie Day), and MURDER MOST FOWL (Local Foods, protagonist Cam Flaherty, author name Edith Maxwell). What a treat on a chilly gray day, with the gardens finally planted and a hot bowl of shepherd's pie and some tea (my beverage of choice). I raced through them, realizing the plant-the-garden weeks had put me a bit behind Maxwell's schedule, and I wanted to get word out especially today, for those of you close enough to consider a trip to Manchester, Vt., tomorrow.

The Local Foods series has been going longer, so MURDER MOST FOWL is the fourth -- and amateur sleuth and market gardener Cam Flaherty is well developed, with characters around her who have also deepened across the series. No problem reading this one cold, without the previous three, although it's fun to enjoy them in sequence and see how it all fits together.

This time, Cam's starting seedlings and her first batch of home-raised chicks for her eastern Massachusetts farm, which is in the second year of the three-year process of getting organic certification. Her warm and steady relationship with local police detective Pete Pappas keeps her balanced, but the murder of a neighboring chicken farmer spins her into action -- the kind she's supposed to stay out of and let the police handle! A group of animal rights activists imposing their own form of terror on local farms may have targeted the now-deceased Wayne Laitenen, but one of the young women involved is the sister of a close friend of Cam's, and the determination to keep young Katie out of any unjust consequences tugs Cam more deeply into the investigation. Plenty to think about here, from the roles of animals on farms, to the shape of modern community and the roller-coaster of land values that can push farmers out of business.

GRILLED FOR MURDER takes place in small-town Indiana, "Hoosier" country, and even though country store and restaurant owner Robbie Jordan grew up mostly in California, she has emotional reasons to make her home in South Lick, where her aunt Adele lives. With her carpentry and kitchen skills, her newly rehabbed country store Pans 'N Pancakes is already a local hit, just a month and a half into its first season. So the last thing Robbie needs is notoriety, which is exactly what she gets on the morning after her first catered party ... when the body of one of the guests lies on her dining-area floor, very dead, and very clearly dumped there, after someone smashed the front door during the night. Robbie never heard a thing -- she has trouble sleeping, so she wears silicone ear stoppers -- but will the townspeople believe she had nothing to do with the death of Erica Shermer, who'd been aggressively flirting with Robbie's boyfriend at the catered event?

Maxwell deals straightforwardly with the most essential aspect of "cozy" or "amateur sleuth" mysteries: showing why her business owners feel they have to add their own snooping to the police investigations of untimely death. Both books are totally convincing on this score, and I like in particular these bit from GRILLED FOR MURDER that show the effect of the death and how close it comes:
I kept picturing Erica. Wondering who'd killed her, who'd broken into my store. I'd never seen a dead body before. It'd been an upsetting, terrible sight. ...

[Later, after making grilled cheese sandwiches for her assistant Phil and herself] "Grilled sandwiches. Yesterday morning I realized my sandwich press was missing from the wall over there." I pointed.

Phil swiped a thread of cheese off his cheek. "So?"

"It's heavy. It has long handles. I'm afraid it was used to bash in Erica's head. And these sandwiches reminded me of it."

"Ick." He made a face.

"Agree." I took a deep breath and let it out. "This whole mess is like trying to work a crossword puzzle and having only half the clues. And it's not even my puzzle to work."
Ah, but it soon is, and for both of these amateur sleuths, their skills, smarts, and friendships create their value as investigators of what the police may overlook or just be slow in seeing. Good puzzle solving, and good people -- and good reading!

Hope you can meet the author soon. A member of Sisters in Crime, she also gives intriguing talks on the books and her skills. Meanwhile, enjoy dipping into all four series -- I like them all, am fascinated by their differences, and also keep thinking about this marvelous era when women fill all the roles in Maxwell's books ... as well as writing them!

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