Death of a Toy Soldier – Barbara Early

Having just finished The Moving Toyshop, it seemed only right to move on to another cozy mystery involving a toyshop. I always begin a cozy mystery with a little caution, because there have been so many bad ones in my life.

And what do you know: Death of a Toy Soldier fills the bill very nicely. I started to have hope when I saw early signs that the writing was superior to most of the cozies (and half the other books) I’ve read lately – and it never let me down.

It’s a fun setting, this antique toy shop run by Liz McCall and her retired cop father – and what made me happiest about it is that Barbara Early pays attention to the nuts and bolts of it. Where I’ve seen far too many shops or inns or whatever in cozies in which the amateur sleuth owner has employees she should never be able to afford, Liz and her father employ her sister-in-law for a few hours now and then, and one young man whose work with online auctions could feasibly cover his salary. Usually the main character’s business is an airy cloud castle, a cardboard standin for employment when a realistic nine-to-five job with a realistic corporate boss would curtail all that amateur detective work

And while Liz’s involvement in the central mystery of the book stems from the fact (facts) that her father is a suspect and that the murder happened in their shop – classic motivations for the amateur sleuth to investigate, both – still, it adds a little credibility to the tale that her father was, not too long ago, a cop. He knows the town; he knows all the other cops; he knows what he’s doing. He’s not supposed to be doing it – almost as much because he’s not well as because he’s not a cop anymore – and the moments when someone on the case turns a blind eye are so much more acceptable in this setting than they usually are.

“I need something to write with,” Dad said. “I miss my board at the station.”
Cathy handed him an Etch A Sketch.

The characters’ speculation about what motivated the killing in the shop neatly served to address the fact that this could turn into something ridiculous. Was there a sadistic toy collector out there, someone asks? And, just as neatly, the author supplies information that turns the idea from ridiculous to plausible: antique toys in good condition might well be worth killing over.

I was surprised, and rather impressed, by the scraps of information Liz gives (in a first-person narration) about her childhood, and about her mother. She never dwells on any of it – but her mother’s severe alchoholism and what it did to the family. “You never forget being dragged by the ear out of a public place by a woman too drunk to stand and too angry to sit.”

I think my only real objection to this book was the mention of how someone lost, badly, at Monopoly. In all the years my family played, I don’t remember ever actually finishing a game. I don’t really remember how we wrapped up – the games just seemed to go on endlessly, and maybe someone would lose all their money (probably me), but I have no memory of a game ending in any way besides “okay, we need the table for dinner” or “you should have been in bed an hour ago”.

I loved to hate the monkey with the cymbals, “the toy consistently voted number one in the category of most likely to be possessed by a horde of demons”. I loved that this toy shop owner freely acknowledges the inherent creepiness of a room full of dolls. I also loved the involvement of ghost hunters – especially that they weren’t the primary focus of the book, and that, while the personalities involved made it something to be gently mocked, still there was the possibility out there that there was more going on than trickery and hopeful credulity.

My favorite thing, I think, in this plus half a dozen other recent books, was the entirely throwaway reference to one of my favorite movies of all time. It’s a couple of sentences, entirely unexplained, and either you get it – and laugh – or you have no idea what the two characters are talking about, and I pity you. And you know? That right there is enough for me to bump up the rating I initially gave this book. It was a solid four, but this all by itself gives an extra half star. And since Goodreads doesn’t allow for half stars, well then …

Oh, and in case you find yourself wondering, as I did, what on earth “beef on weck” is, it’s a sandwich known primarily in western New York: roast beef on a kummelweck roll.

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

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