October 21, 2009

BOOKS: A Date You Can't Refuse, Harley Jane Kozak (2009)

4th in the Wollie Shelley series of light mysteries.

In this volume, Wollie is offered a job by Yuri Milos with his company Medias Rex, which helps newcomers to America -- athletes, singers, models, and the like -- get accustomed to American life and media. She's reluctant to take the job as "dating consultant" to Yuri's male clients, but designing greeting cards isn't the most steady income, and Yuri is offering her lots of money. So when she's approached by an FBI agent who wants her to take the job and report back on what she learns about Yuri's business (and who has just enough leverage over her to make her take the job), she goes undercover as a spy in the Milos family compound. Her boyfriend, Simon (who happens to be an FBI agent himself), is none too happy that Wollie's put herself in such danger, and her pals Joey and Fredreeq are urging her to get out as fast as she can.

Their fears seem to be justified. It's clear very quickly that someone's up to no good at Medias Rex, but it's not clear who, and it's even less clear what. There are ample suspects -- Yuri's extended family includes a couple of ex-wives, an ex-mother-in-law, and two children; and there are half a dozen clients on hand, most of them from eastern Europe -- and Wollie stumbles across evidence hinting at everything from arms dealing to movie piracy.

Kozak's style is light and bubbly; she's often compared to Janet Evanovich, who blurbs this one on the cover. (For what it's worth, I find Evanovich insufferably precious and twinkly, but I like Kozak very much.) Wollie is an engaging narrator, with a dry wit and just enough cynicism to give her a pleasant edge.

The usual cast of supporting characters is on hand -- in addition to Joey and Fredreeq, there's Wollie's schizophrenic brother P.B. and philosophical Uncle Theo -- and though they aren't given quite as much to do in this volume as usual, they have their moments. Most notably, everyone gets to shine in a terrific chapter set at a Santa Barbara chalk art festival at which everybody is on hand -- several of Wollie's Medias Rex clients, pals, relatives, both of the FBI men -- all of them with conflicting agendas.

A Date You Can't Refuse stands on its own perfectly well; there are a few brief references to events in earlier volumes, but nothing that's essential to following or enjoying this one. It's a likable piece of very well-crafted fluff.

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