Megan Casey reviews Cyanide Wells by Marcia Muller

Cyanide Wells by Marcia Muller

This book is interesting not so much for the mystery, which is a bit less than so-so, but for the fact that it was penned by Muller, who, along with P.D. James, Sue Grafton, and Sara Paretsky, are often considered the first modern women detective novelists. James’ An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1972) was the first—and likely the best—of these, but only one more Cordelia Gray book followed before James went on to other characters. Muller’s Edwin of the Iron Shoes (1977) began the long career of P.I. Sharon McCone, who has now appeared in at least 34 novels. Why is this important? Because out of all of the famous women mystery writers we see on the best-seller lists, including Rita Mae Brown, Patricia Cornwell (both of whom identify as lesbian), Janet Evanovich, and J.D. Robb (who do not), Muller is the only one who has written a novel with a lesbian protagonist. And even here she kind of hedges her bets by giving her a male counterpart, who shares the story and comes to the rescue at the end.

The story goes something like this. Carly McGuire, editor of a small-town newspaper, picks up hitchhiker Ardis Coleman, who is on the run from demons in her past. The two fall in love and set up house together. Fourteen years later, Ardis disappears on the same day that her ex-husband shows up looking for her. The husband, Matt Lindstrom, has been tipped off by an anonymous phone call as to where Ardis has been living for so long and he plans to confront her not only for leaving him, but leaving him to be suspected of killing her and disposing of her body. But when Ardis runs away again, he and Carly are forced to team up to find her—before something really happens to her.

Carly McGuire is not a particularly well-drawn lesbian, so you won’t get much of a sense of the LGBT community here. Still, Carly is a strong, acceptably likeable character. Her erstwhile life partner, Ardis, is less so. In fact, her character flip-flops like a jumping bean without a hint as to what makes her do so. A much-needed backstory is hinted at, but never delivered. The mystery is not badly conceived, but it is pretty badly executed. It involves the three-year-old murder or a gay couple who happened to be friends with Carly and Ardis. In fact, if you can believe it, Ardis wins a Pulitzer in journalism for her in-depth reporting of the murder. Meanwhile, the dastardly mayor is threatening Carly and Ardis with all sorts of mean, nasty, ugly things if Ardis doesn’t sell him the property previously owned by the murdered couple—property for which Ardis is the administrator. And property which may harbor a rich vein of gold.

Well, after a great deal of searching and interviewing by Carly and Matt (they have alternate, third-person point-of-view chapters), and two suicides that seem to indicate involvement in the gay couple’s murder, the story seems to peter out in the time-honored fashion of having the killer simply be someone who is insane. The writing is professional, but obviously so. In other words, Muller, who has already written well over 40 novels, has to “research” this one—find out the intricacies of the place, how to be a photographer, and other tidbits. The homework shows. I feel nothing heart-felt here, just surface observations. We know little about even the main characters, such as who their friends are, what they drink, their ages–things that make me suspect that the author didn’t know them either.

I guess the best part of this book—aside from the characters of Carly and Matt—is that the two didn’t get together at the end. But that’s one of those things that, if they had, simply would have taken a full star away from the book’s rating. As it is, the rating doesn’t change. Give it no more than a 2.4 as a mystery, 2.0 as a lesbian mystery. I’d say that if you’re wanting to give Muller a try, start with a Sharon McCone mystery. An early one.

Note: Although this is called the second novel in the Soledad County series, it is the only one in which Carly McGuire is a protagonist. I read the first hardback printing of the Mysterious Press edition of this novel.

Another Note: See my full reviews of over 250 other Lesbian Mystery novels at http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/116660-lesbian-mysteries

Megan Casey reviews She Died Twice by Jessica Lauren

She Died Twice by Jessica Lauren cover

This is another winner for New Victoria, made even more impressive by the fact that the author was only 25 when she wrote it. On the surface, it tells the story of Emma Kendrick’s childhood friendship with Natalie Mercer, who suddenly disappeared at the age of eight. Over the years, Emma buried the image of Natalie somewhere deep within her. But when Natalie’s body is found, seventeen years later, Emma’s memories begin to return.

The story is told from Emma’s point of view but from two time frames. In the present, Emma is asked by one of Natalie’s old neighbors to look into her death. So, despite her own reservations and that of her best friend Carly, she begins to ask questions. No, this isn’t a thriller in which Emma eventually and stupidly finds herself alone with a killer. Rather, it is a story of loss and love and friendship and abandonment, as Emma loses first her father, then Natalie, then her girlfriend Judy. Even her friend Carly is thinking of changing jobs and moving to a city far away.

But there are also chapters in which Emma has vivid memories of herself and Natalie in the past: in their hidden fort, playing house, talking of the future, just being together in the cold, lonely world. She begins to remember specifics that she had never thought about before—the fact that Natalie once showed up for school with a cast on her arm, her fright at having to leave her home to visit her father after her mother has remarried, the memory of Natalie leaving the school counselor’s office—memories that make her think that Natalie might have been abused.

Although there are lots of lesbians in this one, there is no romance and no sex; the book doesn’t call for it. There are a couple of glitches that I am mentioning only in the hope that Lauren reads this and corrects them in any new editions. First, there is a page in which Emma remembers her grandfather having a serious talk with her when she was 14. In the next paragraph, she tells her mother that her grandfather died when she was 12. A second glitch is just an omission. Emma meets Pat Carroll, an older lesbian that she has admired for years, not only for her work in the women’s movement but for her startlingly good looks. When Carly tells her that Pat has the hots for Lauren, Lauren simply doesn’t respond. My god, she has to at least have some thoughts about that. For the record, although I pegged the villain on page 22, I did not guess the murderer. But that’s okay, Emma didn’t either.

As far as I know, Lauren, who, like Natalie, was abused as a child, managed to calm her inner demons and live a normal life without having to resort again to literature. Give this one as close to 4 stars as you can without going over. It should be on everyone’s to-read list, although maybe not as high on that list as some others.

Note: I read the first New Victoria printing of this novel.

Another Note: See my reviews of over 250 other lesbian mysteries at http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/116660-lesbian-mysteries

Megan Casey reviews Murder in the Castro by Elaine Beale

Lou Spencer, your normal, tomboyish young Englishwoman, has fled to San Francisco to escape a bad relationship in her home country. Five years have passed, and although she has been celibate the entire time, she has found a meaningful job as office manager for a LGBT Crisis Management Center. But when one of the Client Advocates is murdered in his office after hours, her rather insulated existence is disturbed to the max. All the indications are that this is a random hate crime, but is it?

A literary theory professor I know once said that whether or not a reader likes a novel has little to do with its importance. I don’t like Madame Bovary, for instance, but that doesn’t mean that Flaubert didn’t influence generations of writers. Elaine Beale isn’t Flaubert, yet my friend the professor’s tenet still holds true. I didn’t care for the novel, yet I realize that there are many things unique and, yes, important about it. Let’s start with these.

First of all, this is what I might call a Movement novel: one that chronicles some form of LGBT or women’s politics in the last years of the 20th century. Think of Vicki P. McConnell’s The Burnton Widows, Barbara Wilson’s Murder in the Collective, or Mary Wings’ She Came Too Late. Chronicling the history of this movement is important not only for what the movement accomplished, but because it was so relatively short, coming in with the hippies and out with the yuppies. Beale gives quite a nice description of an office whose purpose is to help gays and lesbians who have been abused on the street or in the home.

The second excellent thing about this novel is the mention of same-sex domestic abuse; Lou has come to the U.S. to escape from her abusive girlfriend.  While many lesbian novels focus on the abuse of a female character by a husband, father, or other family member, few lesbian authors feel comfortable confronting abuse in their own domestic partnerships.

The mystery, too, is an interesting one. I found myself wanting to know who the killer was, although an observant reader could have guessed who the culprit was on page 22

It is a fast-paced novel, moving quickly from one clue to the next. To the author’s credit, she uses similes instead of plain description. Unfortunately, a lot of the comparisons are overstated, such as when, at a local news conference, Lou describes the media as being “like sharks at a feeding frenzy,” or “if I ever became mayor, I’d not only make car alarms illegal, but possession of them punishable by several years hard labor.” Most of these turns of  phrase could have been (and probably should have been) used to better effect somewhere else. Like in a stand-up comic’s routine.

The investigating officer is homophobic to the point of cliché. Although this is not so unusual in lesbian mysteries (see Kate Delafield’s first partner)—or even in real life—it just isn’t very interesting or pleasant to read about them. Unlike Kate Delafield’s partner, who seemed real, with a real family and real plans, there is nothing distinctive about this man, which tells me that the author really didn’t know her characters as well as she should have. The ending, too, is obviously staged for effect, not coherency. Give her a half star for bringing up same-sex domestic abuse, but take it away again because she only refers to it obliquely—she never really takes us as deeply as she might have into Lou’s abusive relationship with her ex.

All in all, there is nothing terribly wrong with the writing, or the characters, or the mystery, or the romance. The writing style and point of view are similar to that of Mary Wings. In fact, Wings also wrote a book with The Castro in the title in the same year as this one. Fans of Wings and Sarah Dreher will probably like this book. Unfortunately, I’m not a fan of either. You know how you sometimes meet someone and the two of you—like me and Flaubert—just don’t click? It is the personality of the writing—and necessarily of the first-person narrator—that keep this book from getting more than 3 stars. But that is still a fairly good rating, considering.

Note: I read the first New Victoria printing of this book.

Another note: See my full reviews of over 250 other Lesbian Mystery novels at http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/116660-lesbian-mysteries

Megan Casey reviews For Every Season by Frankie J. Jones

When I pick up a Bella book, I sometimes wonder if I shouldn’t just assign it a rating of somewhere between a 2.5 and a 3.5 and go on to something else. I’m talking about Bella originals, now, not reprints. I usually come around to the hope that I might run into something really outstanding, something that would be a credit to the genre, but the fact that none of the 24 books in my Top 20 list are Bella originals tells its own tale. Of course, reading average or bad books is as much my job as reading good ones. Where does For Every Season fit? Well, it doesn’t; it is surprisingly good.

Andi Kane is at the end of a nowhere relationship when she is laid off her job at the phone company. Tail tucked firmly between her legs, she returns to her parents’ home in San Antonio to get her head together and look for another job. But somehow her grandmother railroads her into looking into Andi’s great-grandfather’s murder conviction sixty-five years previously. This despite the fact that she has no experience in sleuthing and that three private detective agencies have already failed to exonerate him.

One of the good things about this book—and there are may—is the fact that at first, there seems no way in hell that Andi can unearth any new evidence about a crime that happened before even her mother was born. But through diligence, luck, and the help of some new friends, Andi just might manage it. And in a way that is both believable and interesting

In the meantime, Andi has become attracted to the district attorney, who also has an interest in the case. What happens between them is the sub-crux of the story—one that spans at least three generations. It is hard not to like Andi—we have all been at a crossroads in our lives, guilty over our perceived failures and anxious to travel down a new road. The small, fictional town of HiHo, Texas is a hoot, as are a lot of the people in it.

It is a well-written, well-edited, and well-investigated mystery. Bravo to Bella for breaking out of the mold of their own making. Give this one somewhere around a 4 and recommend it to your friends, as I am doing at this moment.

Note: I read what seems to be the first printing of the Bella edition.

Another Note: See my full reviews of over 250 other Lesbian Mystery novels at http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/116660-lesbian-mysteries

Megan Casey reviews The Ultimate Exit Strategy by Nikki Baker

Hmm. This book was published by Bella Books in 2001, which would have made it one of their first publications. This means that for some reason Baker bailed on Naiad, who had published the first three books in this series. Naiad was subsumed by Bella two years later. The copy I read for this review was probably the only printing.

The fourth and last Virginia Kelly mystery takes place in the world of finance. The company Virginia has been working for since college, Whlytebread, Greese, Winslow, and Stoat, is about to be subsumed by a larger firm, Gold Rush Investments. This will make most of the Whytebread employees, including junior partner Virginia, fairly rich when they trade in their old company shares. There’s just one problem: Whytebread’s CEO, Wes Winslow, is murdered just a few days before the merger is scheduled to take place. If the murderer is not found, the deal will not go through. So Virginia sees it as her duty to solve the crime.

Like Baker’s other books, this one is too good to miss. Her flashbacks—often within other flashbacks—are not your basic narrative, but she manages to do it flawlessly—the reader always knows exactly where the story is going. Virginia is her old ironic self and her BFF Naomi Wolf is back to keep Virginia on her toes. To complicate the investigation, Virginia gets taken up with Detective Cassandra Hope, an old flame she would heartily like to rekindle. Then there is her faltering, long-distance relationship with Spike, who we met in Long Goodbyes. Virginia suspects that Spike is using her for her expectations and that Cassandra is using her to solve the case.

The British novelist C. P. Snow was a master at conducting dialogue without using actual quotations. Passages like: James was astonished when I told him that I knew his sister from my days at Cambridge. He told me that he had no idea that I had attended school there. Other novelists have done this as well, especially those that were not very good at rendering dialogue. But Baker goes Snow one better, blending active and passive conversation. Here’s an example in a conversation between Virginia and Naomi:

“I called Spike tonight and I broke up.”  I’d thought it was the best timing, considering Cassandra and all.

“Ok right.” Naomi picked up the mention of Cassandra as if it were a detail she’d forgotten. 

An article should be written on the best buds of lesbian sleuths. Certainly Naomi is at the top of the list, followed by Nyla Wade’s Audrey Louise and Jane Lawless’ Cordelia. Oddly, many of our protagonists’ BFFs are actually gay men (see Barbara Johnson, David Galloway, et al). Whenever Naomi is present, there is a spark—not only in Virginia, but in the story. Yet the reader senses that a romance between the two would be a mistake. In this novel, Naomi is trying to give up smoking, which makes her even bitchier than usual. And, as always, she figures out things just a little before Virginia does.

I have seen a review of this book that complains that Virginia is not black enough for the reviewer’s comfort. It reminds me of another review I read about a lesbian sleuth that was not lesbian enough. Virginia is a product of her time and her culture. She did not grow up in a ghetto, her parents were not divorced, and she completed a good college education. In fact, this is a brilliant portrait of a black woman who is trying to make it in the predominantly white profession of personal finance. The book does not dwell on Whitey vs. Blackie. It dwells on a sensitive and very intelligent young woman trying to survive in a world she has chosen. Bravo.

The Ultimate Exit Strategy is as good as the first three novels in the series, or at least it would have been if not for the sloppy job Bella Books did on both the editing and the proofreading. But the author has to shoulder some of her blame herself for not going over the final galleys more carefully (presuming that Bella provided any). The specter of HIV is thrust into the plot at the last minute and not only was it not foreshadowed, but it seems to come to nothing. Somebody missed something, or a couple of somethings. Like the half-dozen discretionary hyphens that pop up in the text. And the more-than-usual typos. In short, Baker made a mistake changing publishers. Maybe she thought that Naiad’s current editor would not be as good as Bella’s. She was probably wrong. Maybe the relative failure of this title made Baker rethink her aspirations as a writer. After all, she has published nothing else in over 15 years. Yet The Ultimate Exit Strategy does not end like the last book in a series. Like the author, Virginia ends up leaving her Chicago firm. Many adventures seem to lurk in the future.

Will there ever be another Virginia Kelly mystery? Who knows. But regardless, Nikki Baker is wildly underrated and underappreciated. Her books need to come out in new editions, including e-book editions. Give this book—and this series—a near-perfect rating, despite the editorial glitches.

For over 250 Lesbian Mystery reviews by Megan Casey, see her website at http://sites.google.com/site/theartofthelesbianmysterynovel/  or join her Goodreads Lesbian Mystery group at http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/116660-lesbian-mysteries

Megan Casey reviews The Lavender House Murder by Nikki Baker

The Lavender House Murder by Nikki Baker cover

The second installment of the Virginia Kelly mystery series finds Ginny and her friend Naomi vacationing in Provincetown. Both are having girlfriend problems and simply need a break from their daily grind. But soon after they arrive, a famous lesbian journalist is killed in an alley. Seems that the woman was a gay rights advocate who believed that outing other LGBT folk—especially white-collar ones—was for their own good and the good of the cause. Now who would want to murder her? Well, the list is a long one.

The list should also be long for people who should read this book. Like In the Game, it has adventure, romance, and some of the best internal dialogue anywhere. Virginia Kelly, financial analyst by day and cruising lesbian by night, waxes poetic about her failing relationship with her lover Em. “There seems to be an irresistible force that causes all my relationships to self-destruct after a prescribed number of years. A kind of siren song that makes me want to hurl myself over the precipice into infidelities and deceit. And “What I wanted was a woman as flexible as builder’s putty to fill in the empty spaces in my life. I wanted a woman as large as a circus tent to wrap around me and keep me safe . . . to make a home for me in the ugly world. ” I can go on and on about Baker’s writing skills. Here’s a description of one of the suspects: “Her face had taken too much sun on its way to middle age, and her eye makeup was pastel blue. It was a school of beauty that had lost out in recent years to realism.” Ginny is sardonic, almost jaded—interesting but odd traits for a woman under 30. Through her introspection, The Lavender House Murders becomes not so much a question of finding a murderer, but of finding out about the world and solving questions in her own life.

While staying within Ginny’s point of view, the first half of the novel flashes back and forth between her and Naomi’s arrival in Provincetown, and Ginny’s discovery of the body a day or so later. It is tricky writing, but she pulls it off grandly. Baker’s cast of characters—all lesbians except for the obligatory gruff police officers—are varied and well-drawn, although a little clichéd at times. Ginny and Naomi are unique and thoroughly engaging, as is the lifestyle the author pictures with fine detail.

A similar book—one about a lesbian Bed & Breakfast in a coastal vacation spot—Death at Lavender Bay, was probably influenced by The Lavender House Murder. Even the titles are similar. This one is way better. In fact, this book was better than the excellent first novel in the series. Stay tuned for my review of the third next month at this time.

For over 250 Lesbian Mystery reviews by Megan Casey, see her website at http://sites.google.com/site/theartofthelesbianmysterynovel/  or join her Goodreads Lesbian Mystery group at http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/116660-lesbian-mysteries

 


Megan Casey reviews Only Lawyers Dancing by Jan McKemmish

I’ve had to create a new shelf for this one called Lesbian Crime Fiction. There is a lot of crime in this book, and a couple of lesbians, but nobody actually solves a mystery or a puzzle. At least, I don’t think they do. The fact is that Only Lawyers Dancing is so literary that it’s often difficult to follow the thread of the several stories that are going on simultaneously. The author uses first person present point of view not only for Frances Smith, the lesbian protagonist, but also for her co-protagonist, Anne Stevens, a straight woman. And for Anne’s boyfriend Harry, who may or may not be a mobster. But she also goes into third person at times, but told as if one of the other characters is relating it. And stream of consciousness abounds.

Anne and Frances are very old friends from two very different backgrounds. Anne’s father was a policeman while Frances’ was a crime boss. One of he recurring narratives in this book is a crime that took place over two decades earlier—one that eventually led to Anne’s father having a nervous breakdown. But despite the fact that these murders are referred to again and again, they seem to have no relation to the rest of the book, which is mostly concerned with a well-known hit man named Max hiring Anne to make him look good in court. The rest of the book deals with various criminals connected to Max and their relationships to both Anne and Frances.

But McKemmish did not write Only Lawyers Dancing for the plot or the story. She did it because she loved writing and the opportunities it often offers to bend genres. She wrote it because she loved words and the many possibilities they give to communicate ideas in different ways. Think of a hybrid between the prefaces to the chapters in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Michelangelo Antonioni’s classic movie Blow-Up, and Clare Sudbury’s odd crime novel The Dying of Delight. But don’t really expect things to make sense. The author knows exactly what she is doing and isn’t shy about letting us know it. “The trouble is you keep expecting it to make sense, like a serial moving tortuously slow through the labyrinth of side plots and byways toward an order, a clarity, a closed book.”

In some places the writing is pretentious, in others it is engaging and downright brilliant. Like, “ . . .the new week looms like a mountain in the mist when you’re on a cheap-fare-to-Europe aeorplane and hoping, hoping hoping that the radar works.” But there is murder, embezzlement, theft, and even a kidnapping on the way to denouement. It’s not certain what satisfaction the characters get from all this, but we can only hope they all live happily ever after. I give it 4 stars.

For over 250 other Lesbian Mystery reviews by Megan Casey, see her website at http://sites.google.com/site/theartofthelesbianmysterynovel/  or join her Goodreads Lesbian Mystery group at http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/116660-lesbian-mysteries

Megan Casey reviews Edited Out by Lisa Haddock

Edited Out by Lisa Haddock cover

It would be easy to just say that this is a really good book and that you should put it high on your list of things to read. but I guess that would be shirking my responsibilities as a reviewer. But if you’ve read any of my other reviews you’d know that several things catch my imagination when I read, three of which are the writing, the plot, and the characters. Edited Out is written in the point of view most favored by lesbian mystery authors, first person past—“I did this, I went there” etc. It’s a good point of view because it brings the character closer to the reader than standard third person limited or omniscient. But it is also an easy POV to make mistakes in because it most easily reveals a character’s personality. And if you don’t like the personality of the main character, chances are you won’t like the book.

I like Carmen Ramirez. She is the daughter of a Puerto Rican dad and a mom of Irish descent. After her mother’s death when she was still a baby, Carmen was sent by her dad to live with her racist, homophobic, and bible-quoting grandmother in Frontier City, Oklahoma—a very thinly disguised Tulsa, complete with a famous evangelist and religious university. Somehow, Carmen has come through her girlhood strong enough to embrace her sexuality and to land a job as copyeditor for the local newspaper. But when she is assigned to work on a story about the murder of a young girl by a lesbian schoolteacher, she must make the hardest decision of her career.

When I first read the description of this book, I was hesitant to open the pages; it was bound to be filled with depressing scenes of homophobia and confrontation. But Haddock manages to turn the story in a completely different direction. Even when Carmen interviews a number of unsavory characters, she does it with such style that even if her questions are not answered, I felt I had nevertheless learned something important.

Like many lesbian detectives in the genre, Carmen is running from a bad relationship (see Claire McNab’s Kylie Kendall, Elaine Beale’s Lou Spencer, ad infinitum). She has been very shy of getting into another until she meets college student Julia Nichols (who reminds me very much of a young Aimee Grant in Katherine V. Forrest’s novels), who identifies as straight. Their developing romance—as well as Carmen’s love/hate relationship with her grandmother—give balance to the book and intersect with the plot in important ways. All the elements combine for an exciting—and hopeful—finish. It’s hard not to credit editor Katherine V. Forrest for the smoothness of this book, especially after having just read several Naiad books edited by others.

There is a lot of religious stuff here but again, Haddock uses the subject as a literary device without actually proselytizing or bashing. Remember that the book is set in Bible-Belt Oklahoma, where churchgoing is as natural as breathing. Does it get a little over the top sometimes? Well, maybe, but there are some enjoyable parts, too, like when Julia argues scripture with her fundamentalist cousin in order to rescue a confused young woman from a room filled with Prayer Warriors. And maybe there are a few too many coincidences in the solution, but hey, doesn’t every mystery have these?

And here’s a question for someone to write an article about: why do so many lesbian mystery protagonists have a gay man as their best friend (not counting their lovers of course)? Carmen has one. So does Bill in Joan Opyr’s books, Lamaar in David Galloway’s Lamaar Ransom, Private Eye, Barbara Johnson’s Colleen Fitzgerald, etc, etc. Is this true in real life? Very few, like Nikki Baker’s Virginia Kelly and Vicki P. McConnell’s Nyla Wade, seem to have same-sex best friends.

Ultimately, Edited Out is a really good book and you should put it high on your list of things to read. In the same league with She Scoops to Conquer, give this one a 4+.

For more than 250 other Lesbian Mystery reviews by Megan Casey, see her website at http://sites.google.com/site/theartofthelesbianmysterynovel/  or join her Goodreads Lesbian Mystery group at http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/116660-lesbian-mysteries

Megan Casey reviews The Slayer by Nadine LaPierre

Whoa. Here’s something I wasn’t expecting. I purchased The Slayer primarily so I could get free shipping for a recent book order. At the time I ordered it, I was not even sure that it was a mystery. The book, when it arrived, was an attractive size and it was well formatted—more accessible for my taste than the often-unwieldy RegalCrest/Quest books. Because it was almost certainly printed by CreateSpace, I assumed it to be self-published (under the aegis of Frisson Books. So far so good.

The prologue—although just as unnecessary as most prologues, was written better and held my interest better than most. Then we meet RCMP Constable Danielle (not Dannie, please) Renaud, who has left her birthplace near Quebec to take a job in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At first blush, she is simply Claire McNab’s Carol Ashton transplanted from Australia to Canada—an incredibly beautiful, statuesque out blonde with a hard-to-match work ethic. But I think Danielle is a more rounded, more-professionally written character than Carol. And she has a good backstory. She has a habit of speaking her ideas into a tape recorder: a convincing and fairly unique motif. So, still good.

In fact, once you get through the first dozen chapters and figure out who the characters are, The Slayer is a pretty remarkable book. On loan from her department to the Special Crimes Unit, Danielle is assigned to look into a cold case—the death of a nurse a year and a half before. Danielle digs into this seemingly impossible-to-solve case and manages to dig up a few new facts no one else had been able to find, while trying to juggle a personal life that includes no less than five women dancing around each other like mating birds. Misdirections abound—but they are misdirections well conceived.

The reader (along with Danielle) learns a lot about forensics and psychology without the author making us think of homework. Danielle’s knowledge of different types of data searches gets a bit forced, but everything else—including a knowledge of veterinary supplies and types of drugs—are spot-on believable. And hey, LaPierre knows her way around the bedroom, too; you can look forward to a couple of delicious sex scenes that are almost worth the price of the book (plus shipping).

The author takes a lot of chances and almost always gets away with what she attempts. The plot often careens like a tilt-a-whirl, but rather than thinking that there might be a method to the madness, I suspect that there is genius in that madness instead. The Slayer is simply one of the most well-plotted books I have ever read. Add this to a plethora of interesting characters and a total lack of typos, and you have the makings of a must-read.

But the book is not all gold and emeralds. It is difficult at times to figure out who is romancing who, a couple of these relationships are not properly brought to a close, there are a few clumsy point of view shifts, needless dream sequences are thrown in here and there, and don’t even get me started on the last paragraph!

All in all, though, it is an exciting and well-written mystery. I recommend this book pretty highly and wish the author would tweak it just a bit. And here’s a clue. Books published at CreateSpace are free to revise and the author doesn’t have to even buy any copies herself. Ditto for e-books. Second edition, anyone? As it is now, I’ll call it 3.7.

For over 250 other Lesbian Mystery reviews by Megan Casey, see her website at http://sites.google.com/site/theartofthelesbianmysterynovel/ or join her Goodreads Lesbian Mystery group at http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/116660-lesbian-mysteries

Megan Casey reviews Black By Gaslight by Nene Adams

There’s a lot to say about this novel—both good and bad. It starts out like a house on fire but finishes in smoldering ruins. Here are some of the good things. First, there is the setting: 1888 London, smoggy, dark, and smelly. Lady Evangeline (Lina, or “the dark-haired lady”) St. Claire is an independently wealthy private investigator. She is tall and strong and versed in the martial arts, like Xena, who, along with Sherlock Holmes, is her inspiration. The Gaby/Watson character is called Rhiannon Moore, who Lina rescues from a life on the streets after falling in love with her at first sight.

In an odd twist, there is another Sherlock Holmes character that plays a big role in the novel. He is called Sherrinford Pike, who lives with his lover, Dr. Ormond Sacker. Lina’s love/hate relationship with Pike is charming and often hilarious. When she accuses him of shooting at her through a dressmaker’s window, he denies it, “even if I did once introduce a cobra into your sitting room. . . . Besides, I thought that you’d sworn not to mention that unfortunate incident with the air rifle again, St. Claire. . . . [and] the arsenic-filled bonbons were an honest mistake committed only once.”

And if that sounds a bit over the top, well, so is everything else in Black by Gaslight. Lina’s language is the language of Jane Austen squared—or maybe the language of the penny dreadfuls that Rhiannon delights in reading. “Rage beat at her and filled her veins with liquid fire. A red mist enshrouded her vision.” And to be truthful, the language is often so well—or oddly—crafted that it escapes being simply romance-novel drivel and often rises to the level of actual creativity. So does the relationship between Lina and Rhiannon. Both are smitten with the other at once, but neither thinks it appropriate to mention it to the other. And when their passion gets the best of them—as it does in strange situations, such as in a carriage when they are chasing a murderer—they will then play it down, or try to pretend it didn’t happen.

But it is almost as if the author gets tired of the novel halfway through. Repetition creeps in, as do inanities. The language becomes tedious, the amount of attention to describing Victorian-era women’s attire takes up too much space, the love story becomes sappy, important incidents are forced—rather than intelligently woven—into the plot, gore is splattered more-than-generously on virtually everything. And then there is the ending, where at least one of the women takes a series of actions so stupid that it defies even my imagination—which is one that has seen more than its share of ridiculous endings. It becomes just another Sherlock Holmes versus Jack the ripper novels, with Jack as someone that constantly hears the voices of prostitutes talking to him. Motivation? Backstory?

The main thing wrong with this novel is the same thing that is wrong with most independently published books in general and lesbian mysteries in particular: the lack of an even halfway-decent editor. Yes, this is an Uber novel and one that was almost certainly first posted to a fan site. And yes, fan sites are notorious for their unabashed enthusiasm for everything Xena (or everything Hermione or everything Kate Janeway) and lack of critical sensibility.

But lack of critical thinking bespeaks a lack of education, and a lack of education is the downfall of civilizations. If you don’t believe me, look around you. What’s worse, competent editors are very few and far between—it takes a great deal of study and reading to even attempt it, while university courses in the fine arts are becoming more and more unfunded. And let’s go even further; good editors command a respectable fee—as indeed they should—and few budding authors or even independent presses can afford one.

So too bad, what started out as a potential Top 20 List novel turned into something that I finished with a sense of relief. What could—with a very competent editor—have been rated near a 5 ends up at somewhere near a 3.

For 250 other Lesbian Mystery reviews by Megan Casey, see her website at http://sites.google.com/site/theartofthelesbianmysterynovel/  or join her Goodreads Lesbian Mystery group at http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/116660-lesbian-mysteries