Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Amateur Sleuth Mysteries to Lower the Holiday Stress

When the pace of pre-holiday prep gets too intense, it's good to have an amateur sleuth mystery on the bedside table -- and here are two for relaxed reading.

SHADES OF WRATH from Karen Rose Smith (Kensington Books) is number six in the (planned) eight-title "Caprice De Luca Home Staging Mystery" series. Home staging is something I've only really seen on TV, but I get the idea --setting up a "scene" in a house that's for sale, so the person shopping for a new home will want to move right in. Caprice De Luca extends her business beyond that aspect, though, to include what I would have called interior decorating. In SHADES OF WRATH, she's on tap for the women's shelter in her town of Kismet. The shelter organization just inherited a run-down mansion and they want Caprice to turn it into something homey for the residents who'll land there, confused, scared, even maybe bruised and battered by life physically. Caprice will also make over the main office of "Sunshine Tomorrow" for the directory, Wendy.

But all too soon, Wendy's found dead in the mansion. Of course there must be many people who resented Wendy's interference in their marriages. But who would go to such a violent extreme?

There are no gruesome images to live with here, even though the crime was deadly, and that's part of what keeps this mystery on the puzzle-solving shelf. Caprice's choice to sort through Wendy's complicated past is rooted in her own guilt, though, for not taking action the night before, when she realized Wendy might be in danger, and all she'd done was give the phone number for a police detective she'd gotten to know. Talking with Detective Brett Carstead, she's on the spot right away as the detective points out:
"She said you had given her my number. Why did you do that?"

Brett Carstead didn't dole out information unless it could help his investigation.

"I didn't do it easily," she admitted. "But Wendy did serious work. When she called me yesterday for your number, she said she was going to talk to you about a matter that had to do with blackmail."
This tightly plotted and smoothly written mystery -- Karen Rose Smith has written nearly 100 books! -- is a great distraction from unending gift lists, calendar conflicts, and family friction. You know all the pre-holiday stuff will work out by the Big Day, but still, it's a relief to step into this book and let the author move you (and Caprice) safely toward a happy ending that's not quite predictable.

DYING FOR STRAWBERRIES is the start of the new "Berry Basket Mystery" series from Sharon Farrow -- but far from the first book for this author, whose usual name is Sharon Pisacreta, of Michigan.

For berry shop owner Marlee Jacob, age 29, business is blossoming -- there are strawberry muffins and other goodies to whip up and serve or distribute, a local festival for June called the Strawberry Moon Bash, and a sweet fiancé to spend spare time with (is there any spare time?). But when the downtown festival turns out to be a cog in a real-estate scheme that could shut down all the charming independent businesses in town, including Marlee's, the town of Oriole Point erupts in conflict. And some of it must be related to what Marlee finds: First someone tries to drown her in the lake, and then she practically trips over a murder. Plus her own past is suddenly putting her new career at even more risk. There are moments like this for Marlee: "I shook my head when he offered me another slice of pizza. This conversation had killed my appetite, and I hadn't even brought up the crystal meth yet."

Highlights of this fast-paced and chunky mystery (almost 350 pages, longer than the usual amateur sleuth book) include Marlee's solid friendships that come through for her, and the yummy recipes at the back. (I plan to try the Strawberry Nut Bread soon.) A lively distraction from real life, for at least a few hours!

Of course, there are also "seasonal" mysteries, to cope with holiday stress in a far different way. Look for the review of Timothy Hallinan's new Fields Where They Lay for that kind of indulgence. More book news to come soon!

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

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