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by Elizabeth J. Duncan
Minotaur, April 2018
276 pages
ISBN: 1250101492

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

After living in Llanelen for almost long enough to be considered a local, Penny Brannigan ought to know better than to consent to judging anything at the local agricultural show (Americans, read County Fair). The rivalries are long-set and deep. Penny is only judging the children's pet competition, where everyone wins a prize for something. She and her friend Victoria also agree to log in the entries for the home-craft competitions: cakes, pies, canned goods and the like. Again, a bit of work and no real hassles. The rules are very clear for these entries. Penny makes a last-minute call to a friend whose entries haven't shown up yet. Another long-time competitor doesn't get her entries in before the deadline.

The next day, many unusual things happen. The nain (grandmother) of one of the pet competition kids doesn't show up for the judging. One of Florence's entries wins a blue ribbon in the home-craft competition; the unusual part is that two of her entries are not there at all. On the other hand, Gaynor Lewis also won - for an entry that certainly came in post-deadline. How did that happen? At the end of the day, when reclaiming Florence's prize-winning raspberry jam, a local black Lab investigates under a table and finds Florence's cake. Unfortunately, it is under the hand of Gaynor Lewis, the missing nain. She's been stabbed with a long, decorative, and deadly cake knife.

There are so many suspects and so many motives. Penny is, of course, reminded to leave the investigating to the professionals. She's fairly careful to turn over all relevant facts to the local police - and keeps to herself the bits and pieces that are suppositions and possibilities, at least until they become relevant and/or facts. There is a lot of leeway in that grey area.

Duncan spends a good chunk of time in Wales every year, so the setting is spot-on. She captures the friendships and rivalries of small town life with great verisimilitude. She also has a good sense of the way families can turn on themselves for the smallest (and largest) of reasons. As the characters are introduced and their stories revealed, the motives for murder are all believable. People have killed for less. All these elements come into play as Penny works her way through the case. The characters, even the peripheral ones, are all people one is likely to encounter in a small town (or a big city); they are human and very real.

This is the ninth book in the Penny Brannigan series. Duncan knows what she is doing, and does it very well. While this book can stand on its own, the series is well worth reading. This is a classic traditional mystery by a woman who knows her stuff.

§ I have been reading and reviewing mystery fiction for over a quarter of a century and read broadly within just about all genres and sub-genres. I have been a preliminary judge for the Malice Domestic/St. Martin’s Press Best First Traditional Mystery Novel Contest for at least 25 years. I live in Northern lower Michigan with my spousal unit, one large cat, and 2 fairly small dogs.

Reviewed by PJ Coldren, July 2018

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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