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One lovely evening in Charleston SC a group of friends gathered at Timothy Neville's stately home to watch the Gaslights and Galleons Parade of tall ships passing by in Charleston's Harbor. Several of those in attendance climbed upstairs to go out on the third floor widow's walk. Theodosia Browning and her partner at the Indigo Teashop were up there appreciating the spectacular view when suddenly, Carson Lanier, a local banker, let out a scream and tumbled over the very low railing to begin a dreadful slide down the roof and off – to fall not to safety but to being impaled through the throat on a tall wrought iron fence.
Everyone but Theodosia recoiled in horror, but she leapt back into the house and ran down the flights of stairs and out the door to find Carson and to help him if she could. She could not, but as a crowd began to collect to stare and comment, she got help in lifting the assuredly dead body to look underneath the front of him. There she saw that he had been shot with a short arrow of the sort one would fire from an old crossbow. She realized that his scream was not because he was beginning to fall but because he'd been shot in the belly. That made it impossible for Carson's death to be accidental. It had to be at best a hideous accident and at worst (and more likely) murder.
This is SO not Theodosia's first rodeo. PLUM TEA CRAZY is the nineteenth in the Tea Shop Mystery Series featuring her as an amateur sleuth and at this point, although the head of the Police Robbery-Homicide Department warns her off, her boyfriend, Detective Riley, has long since given up on containing her enthusiasm and has developed a questionable habit of telling her pretty much whatever she wants to know about the police investigation's progress.
I readily admit that I come to this book cold, with no knowledge of that happened in the eighteen previous novels, but I have trouble seeing Theodosia as a reasonable or reliable resolver of mysteries. Her sleuthing skills appear to be based on her determination to discover information because she "wants to know" which strikes me as a less that adequate reason for her to be gathering knowledge about other people. She also tends babble to anyone she happens to be talking to, sharing both her ideas and her suspicions. In fairness, author Laura Child's series has a devoted and eager following – this series really works for these readers.
However, it does not work for me. Two things go wrong.
First, as the novel moves along, there is incident after incident that is disturbing or downright hurtful – Theodosia followed in a dark alley at night, a woman assaulted on the sidewalk, a young male victim of a hit and run that looks deliberate and breaks his femur, a rock through Theodosia's office window (not safety glass), and a several other things. What doesn't work is that none of these events are followed up or explained. They happen and never show up in the story again. Maybe Charleston is a nightmarishly dangerous city. Stuff just piles up as if a lot of filler was needed to get to book length.
Second, the plot never seems to be thought through. The opening murder is hopelessly improbable. Someone wants to murder Carson Lanier. Someone knows that he will be at Timothy Neville's house on a particular night to watch the show on the harbor. How does the someone know that Carson Lanier will be one of the guests who go out on the widow's walk? Some of the guests certainly did not make the climb. AND, the short arrow shot from an antique crossbow is fired from, drumroll here, the third floor balcony of the Stagwood Inn next door to Neville's house. Really? In the dark? How does the someone know which of the persons on the widow walk is Carson Lanier? And, as both buildings are facing the harbor, the view from this third floor balcony is side on – Carson Lanier is not a full front target at all. He is facing the harbor, isn't he? Oh, and for good measure, author Childs mentions that there is an alley running between the two buildings. If they are stately, that makes a shot of what, twenty feet? Thirty? Finally, when the novel comes to an end and we finally know who the murderer is, we have had no inkling (and do not get one then) that this murderer could possibly have had the skills to pull this off.
I have read a number of cozy mysteries that I have enjoyed. It is a very special genre. I am also aware that many readers look down on the entire genre. If they do, it is this sort of disregard of probability that gives them cause.
§ Diana Borse is retired from teaching English at Texas A&M University-Kingsville and savoring the chance to read as much as she always wanted to.
Reviewed by Diana Borse, March 2018
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