April 16, 2008

BOOKS: A Clue for the Puzzle Lady, Parnell Hall (1999)

First in the Puzzle Lady mystery series.

Bakerhaven, Connecticut, is a sleepy little suburb, so it's big news when the body of a young woman is found in the cemetery. There's a cryptic note attached to the body -- "(4) D -- line (5)" -- which the police chief thinks might be a crossword puzzle clue, so he turns for help to Bakerhaven's newest resident, Cora Felton. Cora is the sweet grandmotherly lady whose face smiles out from hundreds of newspapers that publish the "Puzzle Lady" crossword puzzle column.

Turns out, though -- and this might be considered a minor spoiler -- that Cora doesn't actually write the column; her niece, Sherry, is the real puzzle expert, but Cora's kindly visage is more marketable. The attempts of Sherry and Cora to keep this fact a secret are clearly going to be one of the running jokes of the Puzzle Lady series, which is why I don't feel too bad about giving it away here.

Not only is Cora not really the Puzzle Lady, she's not really the kindly grandmother she appears to be. She's a multiply-divorced, heavy drinking, cranky old broad -- more Elaine Stritch than Angela Lansbury -- who is unkind and abusive to everyone, especially Sherry. She's so unpleasant, in fact, that I am unlikely to return for further volumes of the Puzzle Lady series.

And that's a shame, because there is a lot to like here. The relationship between Sherry and local reporter Aaron is entertaining, and their love-you/hate-you banter comes closer to classic screwball than most such attempts. The murder mystery is entertaining, and I liked the way that Hall flirts with annoying the reader by making his series of crossword clues ridiculously easy, then makes that very simplicity a key clue to the solving of the mystery.

Hall has two other ongoing mystery series, and his skills as a writer and a plotter are good enough that I might check them out to see what he can do with a less detestable protagonist.

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