The Alphabet in Crime Fiction community meme has arrived safely at our fourth stop, the letter "D." We're all safe and sound, thanks to our capable leader, Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise. For this letter, I was facing somewhat of a Dilemma since there were a few books I thought of highlighting. But I came up with a way to resolve it; I've decided to write a 3-D post. That's right; my contribution to this week's stop on our journey is a set of three books: Riley Adams' (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Delicious and Suspicious, Patricia Stoltey's The Desert Hedge Murders and Alan Orloff's Diamonds for the Dead. I hope I'm not stretching the rules too much, Kerrie ;-).
Published in 2010, Delicious and Suspicious is the first in Adams' Memphis Barbecue mystery series. In this novel, Lulu Taylor and her family and friends are excited to find that Aunt Pat's Barbecue, the family's restaurant, is a finalist for the Cooking Channel's award for best barbecue in Memphis. Rebecca Adrian, the television channel's restaurant scout, has traveled from New York to Memphis to sample the competitors' food and make a final decision. When Adrian arrives, though, everyone's excitement soon sours. Adrian is snobbish, malicious and self-centered. She publicly humiliates several of the locals and it's soon clear that she's much more interested in her own advancement than she is in promoting Memphis' restaurants. The afternoon of Adrian's visit arrives and Lulu Taylor sees to it that she's served the finest that Aunt Pat's can provide. Not many hours later, Adrian suddenly dies of what turns out to be poisoning.
The restaurant was crowded on the day of Adrian's official visit, so there are several suspects in the murder. Many of them are Lulu Taylor's friends and neighbours. To make matters worse, gossip soon begins to spread that the restaurant serves poisoned food, so Aunt Pat's (and the Taylor family's) reputation is threatened. Lulu decides to find out who murdered Adrian to clear her friends' names and to restore Aunt Pat's status.
One of the elements that runs through this novel is the culture of the American South. The dialogue, the Memphis setting, the lifestyle and the food all place the reader very effectively without "hitting the reader over the head" with the culture. Another strong element is the set of interesting characters. There's Lulu herself, who's grown up in the restaurant, you might say, and who's determined to keep her family and her family business intact. She's a strong Southern woman, but she has a sense of humour and real compassion. There are the members of her family, too, each of whom is devoted to Lulu, and each of whom is subtly drawn to be unique. There are also some other quirky characters who add zest to the story. The mystery itself is engaging and although the solution makes quite a lot of sense, it's far from obvious: ya got me at first, Riley/Elizabeth ;-).
The second novel in this 3-D post is Patricia Stoltey's The Desert Hedge Murders, published in 2009. Former FBI agent Sylvia Thorn has recently retired from her position as a Florida circuit-court judge and is beginning the process of deciding what her next plans will be. Since her time is now flexible, Sylvia's brother Willie Grisslejon persuades his sister to take his place accompanying their mother's travel club, the Florida Flippers, on a gambling and sightseeing trip to Laughlin, Nevada. What starts out as a fun adventure soon turns deadly. First, the body of a dead man is found in the hotel room shared by two of the Florida Flippers. None of the group claims to know who the dead man is, and the police begin the process of identifying the man and trying to discover who killed him and why. Then, one of the Florida Flippers disappears from the group and is later found dead in an abandoned gold mine. It's soon clear that something more than just one man's death is going on, and the Flippers - and Sylvia Thorn - are soon embroiled in a dangerous mystery. Now Sylvia works to keep her mother and the over-curious Florida Flippers safe as they uncover some nasty secrets that someone's been hiding.
There are several elements woven throughout this novel. Perhaps the most appealing one is the real love we see between Sylvia Thorn and her parents, Kristina and Peter Grisslejon. Sylvia and Katrina exasperate each other, but it's obvious throughout the novel that they're also devoted to each other. We see the same devotion in the relationship between Sylvia and her brother Willie. Willie has what some people call a "sixth sense;" he knows when his sister's in danger and when he has a vision of the threat to Sylvia, he and his father are quick to race to try to rescue the group.
Besides the appealing family relationships, there's also a strong element of humour in the novel. For example, at one point, the travel group is having lunch in a hotel that's rumoured to have a ghost wandering the second floor. When the waitress invites the group to explore the upstairs to see if they can find the ghost, here's Sylvia's private reaction:
"In a pig's eye! I have enough trouble with flesh-and-blood goofballs in my life. I'm not about to introduce myself to a potential ghostly stalker."
There's also humor in some of the group's adventures. There's the motorcycle club that brings Willie and Peter Grisseljon to the rescue of Sylvia and the Florida Flippers. And there's Sylvia's encounter with a group of burros. These and the other comic moments add to the story. So do the quirky members of the Florida Flippers, whom we get to know as the story unfolds.
The main characters in the story are all of retirement age and it's refreshing to see a story in which the important roles are played by people who are no longer - er - twenty. The mystery is intriguing, too; as Sylvia and the group slowly learn who the dead man was, how his death is related to the later death and who's behind the murders, there are plenty of suspenseful moments. You had me going, Patricia!
The third in today's 3-D post is Alan Orloff's 2010 release Diamonds for the Dead. This is the story of Josh Handleman, who travels from San Francisco to his home in Northern Virginia when he gets word that his father Abe has had a fatal fall down a flight of stairs. Josh is at his aunt's house observing shiva, the Jewish mourning ritual, when his father's best friend Lev Yurishenko tells Josh that Abe Handleman was murdered. At first Josh doesn't believe it. Then, he makes a surprising discovery when he prepares to go through his father's affairs. It turns out that not only was Abe Handleman much wealthier than Josh had known, but he'd been collecting valuable diamonds for years - diamonds that are now missing.
Josh determines to find out what happened to the diamonds. As he does, he slowly begins to believe that perhaps Yurishenko was right, and starts to ask questions. Now, Josh examines his father's life and tries to find out more about the man he never really knew. The closer to the truth he gets, though, the more danger there is for him.
One of the elements we see in this novel is the glimpse of Jewish culture that Orloff provides. As we learn about Josh Handleman's life and that of his father, we get a look at some Jewish traditions. There's also a prominent role in the novel for the Reston Hebrew Home for the aged. That culture provides an interesting backdrop as we slowly learn more and more about Abe Handleman's life. Another element woven through this novel is the sense of family we get as Josh comes to terms with his feelings for his father, his grief at his loss and his re-discovery of his family identity.
There's humour, too. For instance, here's Josh's description of his views about Judaism:
"…I flushed all religious knowledge down the toilet the day after my Bar Mitzvah. I was still pissed at God for making me go to Hebrew School twice during the week and once on Sunday, which interfered with my Little League games. Because I was always late, I had to sub in at right field, the wasteland for losers."
In the end, Josh discovers who killed his father and why, and that mystery stays at the core of the story and engages the reader. I didn't know whodunit for a while, Alan!
So there you have it - my 3-D post. Three mystery novels that, each in a different way, tell stories of family loyalty and love, unique places and cultures and interesting characters, all wrapped up in humour. But what's your view? If you've read these novels, what elements do you see in them?