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A HOLIDAY WHODUNNIT
October is hardly finished these days before the Christmas holiday merchandise springs to the retail store shelves. Since I greatly prefer bats and witches to Santa Claus and snow, I couldn't say how I ended up with a Christmas-themed mystery novel on my shelves. But, somehow I found myself staring at Sugarplum Dead sandwiched between Agatha Christie's Curtain and Jim Butcher's Grim Peril. So I took the opportunity to seize it when I went for a holiday trip to the coast. At about chapter seven, I got hooked and couldn't put the book down. It had twists and turns I wasn't expecting.
Sugarplum Dead easily falls into the cozy mystery genre, but I'd add a second category - locked room mystery. Most of the action takes place at the sprawling and somewhat bizarrely appointed Dumaney mansion (with its indoor rain forest and flame-spewing dragon) that nobody seems to leave. It's the home of aging actress Marguerite Dumaney Ladson, who recently became obsessed with contacting her dead husband. When she announces her intention to give the entire family fortune to a slippery new age guru, her assembled children are understandably upset. But things take a turn for the worse when someone ends up dead before breakfast - and it's not who you might expect.
As you can probably guess - if you make cozy mysteries a habit - Annie Darling is not a professional private investigator, but a mystery bookstore owner. This is an opportunity for Carolyn Hart to name drop every mystery writer in the book (so to speak). While I found this a bit annoying I can't lie to you and say I didn't flip through the book later to write down all of the recommendations (and take the chance to namedrop a few myself at the top).
The story didn't grab me right away. I had trouble relating to Annie Darling, the upbeat optimistic heroin of the story. She's got her own business, the perfect husband, and even a house cat (and a store cat). But if her life is perfect now, it wasn't always sunshine and roses for Mrs. Darling. The secondary plot revolves around some unexpected family ties on Annie's side of the family, which is how she's introduced to the Dumaneys in the first place.
But she quickly puts aside her busy holiday duties at the bookstore in favor of trying to solve the murder and juggle family affairs. If I were her staff, I don't think I'd be so understanding. What tension could have been created through that avenue falls short of the mark. That's not to say the book lacks tension, but it was a bit of a tease to have that thread dropped early. Maybe regular readers of the series will be happy to get outside the bookstore?
Sugarplum Dead is the twelfth book in Hart's Death on Demand series, but the first of her bibliography I've read. While I could tell I was missing snippets of character background, this book is completely readable as a stand-alone story. I'll certainly go back and read some of her other stories now that I've had an introduction. I went into this book not expecting to like it much, but to check it off my list and pass it on to another reader. Sticking with it past the first few chapters definitely paid off (and it the holiday elements weren't obnoxious at all)!
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