Review | An Old, Cold Grave (Lane Winslow 3), by Iona Whishaw

OldColdGrave

“Please don’t tell me where to barge. We can never be friends if you think you can.” [Lane Winslow to Inspector Darling, page 265]

A major highlight of any Lane Winslow mystery is the respectful and oh-so-restrained relationship between Lane and Inspector Darling. Especially, of course, when punctuated by the reactions of Constable Ames, who is the reader stand-in in just begging Lane and Darling to get their act together already! To Ames’, and my, delight, An Old, Cold Grave features a couple steps forward in the romance subplot, and, like Ames, I have my popcorn ready for the next instalment in this relationship.

The dynamic in the dialogue above is fairly common in cozy mystery series, but I think Iona Whishaw handles it particularly well. In this book, as in the first two, she does three things I love:

  1. Lane is as much a factor in her own rescue as Darling is, to the point that there’s little doubt she’ll save herself even if Darling never comes along.
  2. Darling acknowledges her competence in this area, his role in providing a supporting hand, and the role his emotions play in his reaction to her “barging off.”
  3. Lane acknowledges how much his support does help, how “insufferable” she sometimes was with “her constant fits of pique at Darling,” which his behaviour doesn’t merit, and which are at least partially caused by her own frustrations about the limitations society imposes upon women.

The combination of all three leads to some measured and nuanced conversations between the two, which I don’t always see with this dynamic, and just makes me root for them more.

The mystery in this novel is probably my favourite of the three Lane Winslow novels I’ve read so far. It’s a cold case, a death from about 30 years ago, discovered when the Hughes family (sisters Gwen and Mabel, and their octogenarian mother Gladys) find a child’s skeleton in their root cellar. As somber as their discovery is, I have to admit this novel has the funniest opening I’ve ever read in this series, with Gwen and Mabel, both women in their 50s, arguing over chores. I absolutely adore Gwen, Mabel, and Gladys, and their family dynamic, and I’m so glad this mystery gave us a deeper dive into their lives! This mystery also led Gwen to learning quite a bit more about her sister’s past, and while the denouement was handled with great restraint, I like to think that the sisters became a lot closer because of it. And if they ever appear again in future books, I know I’ll look upon them very differently!

Another feature I love in the Lane Winslow mysteries is how much I learn about Canadian history. This investigation into the child’s identity and the circumstances around their death led to some flashback scenes about Home Children. These are orphans in England (or poor children whom police found on the streets without parents) who are sent to Canada presumably to be adopted into better lives. But many were abused, or adopted primarily to be used as cheap / free labour, and this novel interweaves the story of a family of Home Children with the mystery. (The British PM made an official apology to Home Children in 2010.)

The novel fell short for me in two ways. First, the Lane-in-peril subplot, while it was resolved well, felt completely random and unnecessary. Part of it may be how it was handled — we see the situation first from Darling’s perspective, and then get a flurry of backstory from Lane later, which reduces the sense of urgency. But also, I don’t get why the perpetrator would have done it in the first place — they seem to get no benefit from it, and when they speak, even they don’t seem to have their heart in what they’re doing. As a result, this subplot seemed shoehorned in only to deepen the Lane and Darling relationship, and as much as I love the relationship subplot, I dislike how forced this subplot felt. Iona Whishaw could do — and has done — better in making dangerous situations feel organic.

Another, minor, snag for me is the subplot about the runaway teen, which had nothing to do with the central mystery. It was an interesting commentary on the limitations society imposes on women, and a way to show how even the usually-perfect Darling can subconsciously falter in his progressiveness. There was also a scene that somewhat tangentially connected it to the main mystery. But overall, I wish that it had either been integrated more fully into the main mystery, or that this subplot had been more fully integrated with the series characters. As it was, it felt fairly tangential, and while I agree with its main points, it ultimately fell flat for me.

Overall, however, this is by far my favourite of the Lane Winslow series so far. (I’ve also reviewed Book 1 and Book 2.) The Hughes sisters and their mom are fantastic, and I’d love to see more of them. The big reveal was, ultimately, more sad than anything, and while part of me wishes it was happier, I love how complex and human so many of these characters are, and how much Whishaw managed to make me care for them within a single book. And, as always, I’m excited to see Lane and Darling’s relationship progress, and I can’t wait to see what happens next for them!

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Thank you to TouchWood Editions for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Murder with Orange Pekoe Tea (Daisy’s Tea Garden Mystery 7), by Karen Rose Smith

MurderWithOrangePekoeTeaCozy mysteries and tea are two of my favourite things, so I was excited to settle into a few quiet evenings with this one. The premise for the mystery was interesting: a lawyer is murdered after taking on the case to defend a fertility clinic where staff error led to the failure of some in-vitro procedures. The daughter of one of Daisy’s friends is a client of the clinic and her husband was caught on camera threatening the lawyer, so as much as Daisy tries to demur becoming involved in the investigation, she gets pulled in anyway.

The novel was pretty good. It was a fairly easy read, the characters were likeable, and the reveal, when it came, took me by surprise. It’s also the 7th book in the series, and while I’ve only read one of the other books, long-term readers will likely enjoy seeing the deep dives into the series characters’ lives. For example, Daisy’s older daughter Vi is dealing with motherhood, and going to mommy groups. Her younger daughter Jazzi is getting ready for college, leaving Daisy with a bit of pre-empty nest syndrome, which Daisy’s boyfriend Jonas seems more than ready to fill. And there’s also a sweet subplot about a family of three women (teenage girl, mother, and grandmother) trying to figure out a living arrangement that’ll keep everyone happy, which I think may resonate with some readers dealing with a similar family situation.

That being said, the book felt overstuffed with subplots for me, many of which didn’t feel relevant to the mystery. I’m not sure if it’s simply because I haven’t gotten to know or care about many of these characters yet, but often, a plot thread would appear, but either not really go anywhere, or fail to catch my interest. For example, the novel begins with a fundraising event to build a homeless shelter in the town, which is crashed by protesters led by a young man named Eli who’d grown up Amish but chose to leave the community. Eli and his motivation for protesting became a huge part of Daisy’s investigation, but the reveal felt anticlimactic, and while there was a scene where Daisy forces his girlfriend to confront some hard truths, we also never quite see the fallout between the couple. Worse, the homeless shelter is barely ever mentioned again. Perhaps it’ll play a big role in a future book, but otherwise, it felt like a big buildup that didn’t really go anywhere.

Some aspects of the case also didn’t make sense. The clinic’s plan for defending against lawsuits is to pin the blame on the clinic tech who’d made the error, but only the CEO and the lawyer knew who the tech was. When the lawyer is killed, the CEO flees the country and still refuses to reveal the tech’s identity, for fear of his life, and much of Daisy’s investigation focuses on finding out who this tech is. But if the whole defence strategy was to blame the procedure’s failures on the tech, why would the CEO care so much about protecting their identity? On top of that, some of the clinic’s clients apparently prefer to go after the tech rather than the clinic as a whole, but I don’t understand why. Unless the staff person was super rich, wouldn’t it be much more lucrative to sue the clinic? All the focus on this staff member’s identity made me imagine all sorts of dramatic possibilities why they would have been protected by the CEO and targeted by clients, so the eventual reveal was anticlimactic.

As well, a minor quibble, but beyond dozens of scenes with characters drinking orange pekoe tea, the special of the month from Daisy’s tea garden, the tea in the title doesn’t really play much of a part in the mystery. The murdered lawyer did happen to be drinking a cup with a bag from Daisy’s tea garden when he died, but Daisy never seriously seems like a suspect, and from the droves of customers requesting the special, that detail turned out to be incidental at most. I was hoping for more. And to be honest, part of me kept wondering why orange pekoe was such a specialty at a tea garden. Isn’t it one of the most common grades of black tea? I feel like most grocery store brands use orange pekoe. Wouldn’t a tea shop spotlight a more unusual blend or a rarer type of tea?

Still, overall, this is a pretty good mystery, and despite what I feel was a surplus of subplots and characters at times, I did become invested in a few of them. Like I said, I didn’t guess the villain. I also enjoyed seeing Daisy and Jonas reflect on the future of their relationship after Jazzi leaves, and there’s a super adorable subplot about Jonas getting a dog.

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Thank you to Kensington Books for an e-galley in exchange for an honest review.

Review | If I Can’t Have You, by Charlotte Levin

IfICantHaveYouCoverIf I Can’t Have You is a compelling, surprisingly emotional psychological thriller that’s kinda like a gender-flipped version of Caroline Kepnes’ You. However, while Joe in You is downright chilling in how charming he is, even when we see how messed up his actions are, this novel’s heroine, Constance Little, is disquieting in a completely different way.

Our first introduction to her is a dramatically visual callback to Kill Bill, with Charlotte in a wedding dress soaked with blood and vomit, while riding the Tube amidst commuters of all ages. The next chapter introduces us to her obsession / love interest, Samuel, a doctor at the clinic where she works as a receptionist, and from the first few lines of Constance’s letter to him, we realize there’s something off about their relationship:

As much as I’ve been desperate to tell you how much I miss you, think about you until my head spins, my stomach constricts, it was Dr Franco’s suggestion that I write. [p. 4]

The intensity of her language hints less of love than of obsession, and the reference to a doctor immediately raises questions about the status of Constance’s mental health. And when we finally meet Samuel, and we see how he interacts with Constance, contrasted with how Constance seems to view these interactions, it becomes obvious that she’s setting herself up for heartbreak.

Like Joe in You, Constance doesn’t deal with rejection well, and as the story progresses, her interest in Samuel becomes increasingly obsessive. Yet unlike Joe, who becomes ever more creepy the more we get to know him, Constance actually becomes more sympathetic over time. Even when we recognize how messed up her actions are, it’s hard not to feel for her, and possibly even empathize with her a bit.

Part of it is, unlike the arrogant, ultra charismatic Joe, Constance is a really sad, unremarkable person. She has a tragic backstory — she’s lost both her parents, and the extent of tragedy behind their stories is revealed to us very gradually — and as a result, she truly fears that everyone whom she loves will eventually leave her. She’s forced to confront this fear in the present-day story, partly through Samuel, but, more heartbreakingly, with an elderly man whom she befriends, and honestly, there are times when you just want to give her a hug.

There’s a particularly powerful scene early on where Constance writes her father a birthday card, as she does every year, but because she doesn’t know where he is, or if he’s even still alive, she mails it in without an address. And in this scene, the mailman notices she didn’t include an address, and helpfully returns the letter to her. Levin writes this scene with beautiful restraint, tucking such depth of emotion between her lines, and honestly, the image of that envelope, with stamps but no address, and of Constance trying to pretend she just left the address at home, just about broke my heart.

But for me, what really turned Constance into a subject of sympathy more than censure is that karma actually hits her within the story. Just as she stalks, and obsesses over, Samuel, her friend Dale also becomes obsessed with her. Ironically, Constance totally misses the parallels between their situations, but her fear and discomfort in the situation are palpable. Her frantic attempts to manage his emotions and maintain her safety are distressingly relatable, and while it’s super messed up that she thinks her actions towards Samuel are somehow completely different and justified, her experiences with Dale are nerve-wracking.

Samuel is also an interesting character study for me. His careless treatment of women raises quite a few red flags. As a reader, who’s less oblivious than Constance, it’s clear from the start that he’s interested only in sex and not in anything deeper, and it’s kinda shady that he chooses not to address that directly until a few weeks into dating. He also continues to ask Constance for sex, even after he’s learned of her deeper feelings for him, and sometimes, it doesn’t so much seem as if he’s misunderstood Constance’s feelings as that he doesn’t care. But the biggest red flag to me is that he dismissively describes his ex-girlfriends as clingy and unreasonable, which is so often used by men to justify their crappy treatment of said girlfriends. Then again, it wouldn’t be inaccurate for him to describe Constance in that way, so perhaps there’s more truth to his depiction of his ex-girlfriends than I originally thought.

Overall, this is an entertaining story that I devoured in a couple of days and found hard to put down. And Constance is a fascinating anti-heroine, a perhaps softer and more vulnerable alternative to the usual fare of charismatic villains.

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Thank you to Publisher’s Group Canada for a copy of this book as part of their holiday giveaway in December 2020.