Susan reviews Sawmill Springs by Gerri Hill

Sawmill Spring by Gerri Hill

Sawmill Springs, while not perfect, is what I’ve been wanting from Gerri Hill’s police procedurals all this time: a competent-enough mystery with less of the gender- and sexuality-absolutist nonsense that’s put me off her other books. Sawmill Springs is about Murphy, a former Houston homicide detective, and Kayla Dixon, a former FBI agent, who both independently decided to move to small town of Sawmill Springs in search of a quieter life… Which they don’t get, because shortly after their arrival, the murders begin.

The depiction of Sawmill Springs as a small town was pretty good for the first half of the book – Gerri Hill manages to create a real sense of a place where everyone knows everyone else (and their business), although sometimes the characterisation of the town as a small, quiet place goes a little too far – you really expect me to believe that a police officer doesn’t know better than to gossip about the details of the case? Or that people need to be kept out of crime scenes? Or that someone would extend their “But they can’t be the killer! I’ve known them all my life!” field to an entire town? As this lack of professionalism and lack of resources is the cause of half of the drama on the investigation front, it’s a bit jarring when the characters are isolated for the second half of the novel and suddenly no longer have to deal with these problems.

I also had a slight problem with the resolution of the mystery, in that it felt too obvious and too simple to me; it felt like the book was setting up a bigger, more emotional pay-off with the mysteries of “Who is Mr X? Is there more than one killer in town?” weaving into the actual murders, but no! I might just be disappointed because it means that a character that I thought was playing at incompetence while actually masterminding the whole affair is actually just really bad at their job, so the tension and the mystery just dissipated without any real payoff, and the plot holes than I thought were foreshadowing were never resolved.

As for the romance: I actually liked most of it! Kayla and Murphy actually have decent chemistry and bounce off each other well, but I wasn’t really impressed with the artificial drama created by Murphy’s assumption that Kayla was straight. In isolation, it probably wouldn’t have bothered me, but in the context of Gerri Hill’s other works it felt disappointing – especially because the assumption seemed to be based entirely on the fact that Kayla is femme and married a man once. Could the constant flirting Kayla did suggest that she was bi? Who knows, it’s never mentioned as a possibility. The other thing that bothered me was that the sex scenes and romantic confessions seemed really weirdly placed. “Running away from a serial killer” is maybe not the best time to evaluate your relationship? And the chapter transition that went straight from “discovering a corpse” to “in media res of a sex scene” without any pause or decompression was terrible pacing. So bad that I had to check the book to make sure I hadn’t accidentally skipped some pages!

Basically, the mystery was slightly disappointing, but the romance was probably one of the best in all of the Gerri Hill books I’ve read. I think if you want to read Gerri Hill’s works, this is the best place to start!

[Caution warnings: murder, hostage situations, homophobia]

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found writing for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Danika reviews Twisted at the Root by Ellen Hart

Twisted at the Root by Ellen Hart

I’m pretty new to reading mystery novels, but I picked up Ellen Hart’s previous book and enjoyed it, so I thought I would give this a try. It’s part of the Jane Lawless series, which has been going since 1989! Jane is a part-time restaurateur, part-time private investigator. There is a big cast of characters, obviously growing in size as the series continues, but I found it pretty easy to jump in at this point.

I can definitely understand why cozy mysteries are popular! Reading about Jane sitting in front of a roaring fire, dog curled up her side, going over her thoughts about the case–I can see how this subgenre got its name. It was a book I wanted to read leisurely, not racing to find out the final reveal, but enjoying the ride to get there.

Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy this as much as A Whisper of Bones, and that was primarily because of the characters involved. Although there were some that carried over who I enjoyed seeing again: Cordelia, her theatrical (in every sense) best friend, and Julia, her on-again-off-again girlfriend. Jane and Julia’s relationship is flawed and intriguing; I’d like to see how it began. The new characters, though, grated on me. Jane’s brother makes an appearance, and I’m not sure if he is a regular in the series, but I didn’t connect with him, partly because he seemed almost interchangeable with one of the suspects, Eli. [spoilers: they are both ex-drug addicts with a marriage that fell/is falling apart, and they both want to be with Kit despite that clearly being a terrible idea.]

Kit was a character who grated on me. It’s not that she wasn’t believable: I’ve known toxic people like this, and I get the allure. But it’s not just one person who is so attracted to her that they don’t notice her flaws: it’s basically every guy she runs into. This is the woman who married her boyfriend’s dad while said boyfriend was in rehab. There are some definite red flags there! [spoilers: I hope we’re not supposed to be invested in Jane’s brother as a character, because I lost all respect for him when he continued to be pulled in by Kit despite overwhelming evidence that she was in the wrong.]

I think the Jane Lawless series is strong, and I will come back to it (maybe from the beginning this time), but this one felt like a weak point to me. The mystery didn’t feel like much of a puzzle, and the introduced characters were forgettable and sometimes interchangeable. Characters are a big part of what I concentrate on in a book, so that was a letdown for me.

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 The End of April by Penny Sumner

endofapril

Tor Cross is a special kind of private Investigator: one who is trained to authenticate and preserve documents. Her great aunt—an Oxford professor—hires Tor for both of her skills. Not only does and want Tor to validate the authenticity of handwritten Victorian-era erotica, but also to investigate a series of threatening messages received by a law student at Oxford—a beautiful law student, named April Tate. But April dismisses the threats and Tor has to go into overdrive to make sure that April’s complacence doesn’t get her killed. And that means finding whoever is sending the notes.

The setting conjures up Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night. In fact, one of the characters even mentions that iconic title. But it also brings to mind other books in this side-genre of lesbian mysteries: murders in the halls of academia. A few come to mind: Report for Murder by Val McDermid, Angel Food and Devil Dogs by Liz Bradbury, Hallowed Murder by Ellen Hart, and even Agenda for Murder by Joan Albarella. I happen to like this motif; the educational settings seem to give the books a grounding in the literary.

The End of April is constructed differently than many other lesbian mysteries in that Tor gets the girl right away—without having to wait until near the end of the story when the mystery has been wrapped up and the love interest is no longer a suspect. And unlike the relationships in some books—in Stoner McTavish, for instance—the attraction between the two women is easy to understand. Both Tor and April are intelligent, outgoing, and immersed in their own special talents. It is a rather spare, easy-to-read novel and because Tor is likable, her first-person narration makes the novel smooth and enjoyable. The writing is always adequate, but in places—like when Tor thinks she has lost April for good and waxes poetic about love—it is both exquisite and wise.

One problem, though, is that it is a chore to remember the actual perpetrator even a day or two after finishing the book. This seems to indicate that the criminal was not really a major character. That’s all right; I don’t believe that the criminal even has to be part of the story at all. What I argue with is that, if the criminal is present, he or she should be memorable. Another small peeve is that Tor’s job transcribing Victorian-era porn gets a way-too-brief mention. Neither the job nor the author of the manuscript she is transcribing is adequately described. It is not impossible that Sarah Waters, in her dazzling Fingersmith, took it upon herself to finish what Sumner started. Kudos to Waters but not to Sumner.

This 1992 novel is part of the second wave of Naiad Press mysteries. As such it has historical significance in the LGBT publishing world. It was even edited by two of Naiad’s shining lights—Katherine V. Forrest and Clare McNab, who wrote the popular Kate Delafield and Carol Ashton series of mysteries respectively. The End of April is a better-than-average mystery with better-than-average characters. Give it somewhere between 3 and 4 stars and add it to the burgeoning list of mysteries set in academic surroundings.

 

Anna M reviews Small Town Trouble by Jean Erhardt

smalltowntrouble

Jean Erhardt’s Small Town Trouble is the first in a series of mysteries that features the somewhat reluctant detective Kim Claypoole. As the action begins, we find Kim returning to the small Ohio town of her youth to advise her mother on a potentially shady real estate deal. Behind her, she leaves a successful restaurant, which she runs with her best friend; her double-wide trailer; and the married and closeted Martha Stewart-esque hostess with whom she is currently involved, Nancy Merit.

Kim’s mother Evelyn has always had a “spend first, ask questions never” mentality, which has gotten her into financial difficulties. Evelyn’s remaining assets include a palatial estate and her dead husband’s unprofitable country radio station, which a mysterious benefactor has recently offered to purchase for $250,000. Kim arrives to counsel her mother and discovers that the proprietor of the town’s topless bar has been murdered and that the person offering to buy the radio station is also interested in the family farm of her junior high kissing partner, Amy.

Curious against her will, and faced with an increasing number of odd occurrences, Kim tries to put the pieces together while juggling her mother, the married Amy’s rekindled interest, her disgruntled restaurant partner, and her relationship with Nancy. With Amy playing George to her Nancy Drew, Kim pokes around and gets more trouble than she bargained for, putting her life in danger to uncover the secrets of Fogerty, Ohio.

Erhardt has a dry, tongue-in-cheek delivery that makes Small Town Trouble a lot of fun to read. For example, when Kim has resolutely decided to ignore her concerns and have her mother take the money and run, a small voice that sounds “a lot like Jessica Fletcher” prods her to keep investigating. I appreciated Kim’s cultural references and her dogged approach, even though her judgment in her personal life is clearly questionable. Kim’s history shares several details with Erhardt’s bio, and I would be interested in reading the next book to see where Kim goes from here. I expect that Erhardt’s experience as a private investigator will provide her with a lot of fodder for both comedy and tragedy.