September 11, 2009

BOOKS: The Cold Light of Mourning, Elizabeth J. Duncan (2009)

Settings for murder mysteries don't get much cozier than Llanelen, the tiny village in North Wales that is Duncan's setting.

Local boy Emyr Gruffydd is about to marry Meg Wynne Thompson, a big city girl (all the way from London!) who none of the locals much likes, when she vanishes on the morning of the wedding. Her body is found a few days later, setting Llanelen abuzz with speculation. Fortunately, Llanelen has Penny Brannigan, surely the cleverest manicurist ever to take up amateur crime-solving.

You don't often hear the term applied to mystery novels, but there is a very strong flavor of the Mary Sue in Penny, who is a Canadian immigrant to Wales; author Duncan is a Canadian who lives part-time each year in Wales. They're of a similar age, and judging from the author photo, they even look somewhat alike. Penny is sweet, charming, intelligent, and lovably self-deprecating; by the end of the novel, she's won herself both a new BFF and a hunky policeman boyfriend.

The Cold Light of Mourning is this year's winner of the St. Martin's Press Malice Domestic contest, awarded to the best first traditional mystery novel, which St. Martin's then publishes. "Traditional mystery" means cozy -- no explicit sex, violence kept off stage, amateur detective, usually a small-town setting -- but even fans of the cozy may find this one a bit too cloying, I fear. Duncan has an odd obsession with describing people's wardrobes in loving detail, and the creepy inhuman perfection of St. Penny of Llanelen quickly grows tiresome. Her insights into the mystery stretch credibility -- her realization of where the body must be is particularly hard to swallow -- and the whole village is so charming, twee, and sweet that I fear diabetics should be forbidden to read the book.

Unfortunately, the only grounds I have to forbid the rest of you from reading it are those of good taste.

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