The alphabet in crime fiction meme has now reached the letter “P” in our perilous journey through the alphabet. My thanks to Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise for taking care of us along the way. My choice for this 16th stop on the “tour” is Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Pretty is as Pretty Dies, published in 2009.
Pretty is as Pretty Dies begins on a hectic morning in the Clover family of Bradley, North Carolina. Elaine Clover is busily trying to juggle morning chores, a French foreign exchange student, a rambunctious two-year-old, and a telephone call from her mother-in-law, Myrtle Clover – all at seven in the morning. Myrtle is upset because her advice column in the Bradley Bugle has been cut. Apparently, Parke Stockard, a newcomer to Bradley, has been given prime space for her own column, and Myrtle isn’t the only one who’s upset with Parke. Parke Stockard may be beautiful, but she’s self-serving, greedy and mean. She’s a rapacious real estate broker who’s got her own ideas about how things in Bradley should be run. So nearly everyone, from the United Methodist Women, to the Altar Guild, to the other employees of the Bugle, has a good reason to hate her.
During her conversation with Elaine, Myrtle finds out something that makes her even more upset; her son Red, Bradley’s police chief, has signed her up to work with the United Methodist Women and the Altar Guild. Furious with Red for trying to run her life, Myrtle decides to take her own revenge. That night, she drags out a garden full of ceramic gnomes and decorates her yard with them, since she knows that will embarrass him. The next morning, Myrtle goes reluctantly, to say the least, to the local Methodist church for her first meeting with the Altar Guild, only to find Parke Stockard’s dead body by the altar.
While the minister calls the police, Myrtle decides to do a little investigation of her own. She’s determined to prove that just because she’s in her eighties doesn’t mean she’s ready to be put out to pasture. So she finds out as much as she can before Red arrives. When he gets to the scene of the crime, Red is sure that his mother is going to poke around and get involved in the case. Not only does he not want her to tamper with evidence, but he’s worried for her safety. So Myrtle is hustled out of the church as soon as possible, but not before she finds some clues that she uses to start looking into the case herself.
As Myrtle investigates Parke’s death, she finds out that Parke’s made more than one enemy. For instance, there’s Kitty Kirk, who always did the altar flower arrangements – until Parke arrived and began to take over. As if that weren’t enough, Kitty claims that Parke’s son, Cecil, introduced Kitty’s son, Brian, to drugs. And there’s Althea Hayes, who blames Parke for her husband, Tanner’s, sudden death from a heart attack. There’s also Josh Tucker, former columnist for the New York Times, whose column space has been slashed in favor of Parke. And it turns out that Parke’s been blackmailing City Councilman Benton Chambers.
As soon as it’s clear that Myrtle isn’t going to leave the case alone, Red tries to dissuade her, but that only serves to make Myrtle more determined to find out who killed Parke. The closer she gets to the truth, though, the more dangerous things become for Myrtle. Matters come to a head one night when she’s deliberately pushed into the lake by her house, and only barely escapes with some help from her new neighbor, Miles Bradford. Before he knows it, Miles has been drawn into the case, too, and he and Myrtle begin to work together to solve the murder. In the end, after a disastrous dinner, a few false leads and another death, Myrtle finds out who killed Parke Stockard.
The novel is well-paced, and the action keeps the reader wanting more, but the real appeal of Pretty is as Pretty Dies is the characters, the humor and the setting
Pretty is as Pretty Dies is set in the American South, and the culture of the South adds a great deal of character to the novel. So does the small town of Bradley itself. We really get a feel for the town, including Bo’s Diner, the local Methodist Church, the Bradley Library, the local book club and the grocery store.
Another truly engaging aspect of the novel is the set of eccentric characters that appear in it. We meet nosy neighbors, small-town politicians, gossipy waitresses, and the members of the Altar Guild, among others. Each one has a unique personality. However, it’s Myrtle Clover herself who’s perhaps the most engaging character. She’s smart, funny, sarcastic, short-tempered and impatient. Far from the traditional cookie-baking grandmother, Myrtle isn’t content to retire and spend her days watching her favorite soap opera. She’s determined not to let life pass her by, and it’s the brave person who stands up to her.
Woven throughout Pretty is as Pretty Dies is a great deal of humor. It’s not easy to add humor to a murder mystery, but Craig excels at this. There are several funny scenes in the novel; a disastrous dinner party and a meeting of the local book club are two of the funniest. The dialogue is also sharp and witty, and richly flavored with the culture of the American South..
I recommend Pretty is as Pretty Dies highly, especially for those who like cozies with character. This novel has a very effective blend of engaging characters, well-paced plot, twists and surprises, and a unique sleuth. Oh, and there are gnomes.