Pardon me while I hop up on a soapbox.
Ladies and gentlemen, readers and especially writers of cozy mysteries, this – (allow me to wave a copy of Death and the Gravedigger’s Angel in the air) this is how it’s supposed to be done.
The object, last time I looked, of a cozy mystery is pure entertainment. They’re supposed to have a main character who is not a cop but has some sort of access to mysteries that makes sense. They’re supposed to be light in tone, or even funny. They’re supposed to be long on characterization and charm; a twisty plot is a bonus, but not a necessity.
And The Gravedigger’s Angel does it right, in spades. The titular main character, Death Bogart, is a private investigator, with an auctioneer girlfriend named Wren. Both are well-written and engaging, and are surrounded by characters I enjoy. I laughed out loud reading this, often. Do you have any idea how long it’s been since that happened more than, say, once in a book? The flying buttresses. “Yaaaarrrrgh”. The French lesson. And, best of all, the battle of the Bible verses – marvelous.
“Hit your head again?”
“I wasn’t asking. I was offering.”
“I had a possessed rabbit once.”
“I’m not even surprised.”
It wasn’t perfect. My eyebrows rose a little at the idea that someone could forget they had sold an authentic Civil War Confederate uniform, especially early on in her career – I can’t believe I would ever forget about something like that – but I guess the reasoning was the sheer volume of stuff that was sold. And probably by the time of publication someone will fix the point that the auctioneers make that they keep records for six years, and the uniform was sold less than six years before what I assume is the setting for the book (2016-17).
But any quibbles I had with small plot holes or what-have-you were more than outweighed by the references to Star Trek and Tolkien, and indeed Lord Peter – and the fact that the story behind Death’s name was not rehashed from the first book. (If Loretta Ross was trying to earn brownie points, she totally scored with me.) On the one hand, I’m wary of the trove of puns and wordplay that can (and do) spring from the name in a series of murder mysteries… the fact that that horse Death comes to know is a gray kind of made me sigh a little … but … how can I hold it against the author when a) the man is named for Lord Peter Wimsey, and b) it would really be inhuman for anyone to resist riffing on the name now and then. Just once and a while. I mean, really. And given the conceit of the main character’s name being Death, how could anyone resist using it in the titles?
Woven in amongst the humor and book-geeky goodness is a very serious and very well handled exploration of PTSD and depression. Death has been broken, and while the pieces are coming back together, and he’s beginning to be able to see daylight, still the depression never goes entirely away – “lurking like a dark, tentacled monster under the surface of a sunny pond”. The PTSD never goes entirely away – it impacts every day. It’s not the focus of the story. But it makes for a solid foundation, a gritty background for the froth and fun. And the joy. Just as there’s a real strain of darkness in the book, so is there actual joy. That’s an accomplishment.
And then there’s a joke about teaching French using Lady Marmalade, and I’m giggling like a kid again.
And there’s a bit of a clever mystery as well, in which the non-sleuthing main character only accidentally ends up in danger (as opposed to sticking her nose into places it has no business and ending up in danger). So, yes: this is my benchmark for a cozy mystery done well. I love this series, and I hope it keeps coming for a long time.
The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.