Friday, April 06, 2018

Yummy Debut for a New Series from Denise Swanson, TART OF DARKNESS

I'm late discovering Denise Swanson -- her mysteries are already well known, and she's written many! Last September she released the first in a new series, "Welcome Back to Scumble River," jump-starting an existing run of books but with fresh energy (the first title was Dead in the Water).

Now she's started a second (!) new series, and this one is has many yummy moments. The series is called "Chef to Go" and it opens with TART OF DARKNESS. Count on Swanson, a true pro in the "amateur sleuth" mystery genre, to keep the red herrings splashing and suspenseful twists multiplying. In the classic mode of, say, an Agatha Christie mystery, the tension for the entrepreneur Dani Sloan is steady from the start, but not creepy in any sense ... you won't need to check that you locked the door, or turn on extra lights. Instead, with Dani, readers can chase the clues and try to figure the killer a few heartbeats ahead of Dani's own discovery.

The opening situation fits plenty of daring young entrepreneurs today: Dani's quit her corporate job, lucked into an inherited house practically perfect for a cooking-related business, and scraped up just enough money to get her catering business launched. Except it's a bit short after all, so when three young women attending the nearby college propose to bunk in her spare rooms, contribute rent, and provide kitchen and house maintenance labor, Dani's got an ideal solution. If, of course, the "girls" behave.

She's not much older than they are, but with collaboration from one of their uncles -- a charming unmarried security pro on the campus -- things seem to be working out.

That is, until her first major catering job, for a wealthy and spoiled young woman the same age as her boarders, Regina Bourne, turns dangerous, when a drunk knocks over a bamboo torch and lights the buffet table coverings on fire:
Dani's pulse raced, and for an instant, she froze as the dried grass fiber blazed. Then instinct kicked in and she dropped to her knees. Searching under the table for the fire extinguisher she kept handy anytime she used Sterno to keep the food in her chafing dishes warm, she nearly cried in releif when her fingers brushed the metal canister.

Yelling for everyone to stay back, Dani held her breath and sprayed the flames until the foam ran out. Shakily, she put the extinguisher down and sucked air into her starving lungs.

Before she could catch her breath, Regina marched up to her and demanded, "Clear off this table, and get new trays of desserts out here right now."

Dani blinked. She'd been expecting Regina to thank her, not issue impossible orders.
But that's Regina's way -- so when Regina turns up murdered, there are plenty of suspects with motive to sort through. And Dani needs to make sure the crime is quickly solved, before word of mouth and mean rumors can take away her barely opened business in the community.

It's a pleasure to ride along with Swanson's tight plot and smooth writing, with a side plot (of course) of mild romance. She's a truly skilled mystery author, and the suspense rises just high enough to make the pages turn quickly, while avoiding anything truly gruesome. I enjoyed every page -- and by my favorite test of a book, the number of people I'd like to give a copy to, this gets a very high score!

Sourcebooks Landmark is the publisher, and knowing this is the start of a series makes the slight awkwardness at the end into a promise of plot twists to come in the second title. I'm marking the series as "get the next one ASAP." By the way, there are no recipes included -- something of a surprise for a "foodie" mystery -- but there are plenty on Swanson's website.

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

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