Murder Is for Keeps – Elizabeth J. Duncan

This is, unfortunately, in in the “against” column for cozy mysteries. It wasn’t horrible. But for a three-hundred-page cozy, it was one heck of a slog, and seemed to take me forever.

One of the most important things in a cozy is the cast of characters, and … the characters in this book did nothing for me. I actually found most of them mildly off-putting. Main character Penny was strangely amorphous, never leaving any kind of strong impression on me at all. She’s an artist, of enough impact that when she offers a set of paintings for a fund-raising auction they are happily accepted, and they set off a bidding war – but that’s not what she does. (One highlight I made: “My paintings will never do it justice. It’s got something that’s impossible to capture.” Not if you’re a decent artist, it doesn’t.) Her income apparently derives from a spa of sorts she and a friend own and operate – though it sounds more like simply a hair and nail salon than a spa, unless I wasn’t paying enough attention (absolutely possible – there was much skimming involved in finishing this book). (This could have been revealed better, for someone who hasn’t read – and won’t read – the preceding seven books: it took some figuring to realize her position – I had assumed she painted for a living. It’s a challenge, providing exposition in a series that will orientate the newbie while not boring the regular reader – and the author failed, I think.) The fact that at one point Penny needs to literally count on her fingers to figure out a date just made me sad.

And then, of course, as another sideline Penny investigates mysteries, for which her partner at one point gives her the sort of talking-to I would expect from a mother to a naughty child, not one middle-aged business partner to another, ticking her off for taking time away from the business to investigate a murder. And yet a little while later she had a complete reversal, and not only encouraged Penny to take a day off to go investigate but volunteers to go with her.

Her one-time (almost?) lover Gareth, now a retired DCI who is having trouble entirely letting go of the job, is also having trouble adjusting to the friendzone Penny has put him in. It was extraordinarily awkward to read about these two people who love spending time with each other, do all sorts of things together, rely on each other in every way, and then kind of clumsily fumble through do-I-kiss-you-or-what-I’ll-just-leave-now moments. This might be a good one for my “Just TALK TO EACH OTHER” shelf. They do, talk that is, a little – but it’s all … well, stupid. My notes on the Kindle featured such things as “A MAN HAS NEEDS, PENNY”… And then, a few pages later, “NEEDS, I TELL YOU.” All caps and everything. When I take the trouble to go all caps and put in the comma on a Kindle note, you know I’m serious. (“‘Still, I thought he was devoted to me, and I didn’t really expect this.'” My God, woman.)

Det. Inspector Bethan Morgan, who took Gareth’s job when he retired, was another yo-yo character. She absolutely did not want Gareth’s help with the investigation, nor Penny’s – despite the fact that the latter found the body … until she absolutely did want their help, and then she all but turned the case over to them. It was completely unconvincing.

I felt that the writing was strangely uncertain for something that is the eighth book in a series; it seemed to me like some sections were feeling their way toward where they needed to go. Sentences were badly constructed, commas popped up where they shouldn’t and failed to appear where they should, and – oh, look, there’s Captain Obvious. “…A rusty red blur emerged from the dense woodland behind the castle. It moved with a swift, agile gait, carrying its bushy whitetipped tail horizontal to the ground, as it headed in the direction of the stable yard. A fox, she thought with delight.” And here I thought it might be a wildebeest. That’s actually kind of typical. The author doesn’t seem to trust her readers much, and I found it annoying to be taken by the hand and led through situations baby step by baby step. I don’t know if this is an issue of the uncertainty I mentioned, or an inability to write decent exposition, or that desire to make absolutely, completely, and utterly sure that the picture in the reader’s head is exactly the same as the picture in the author’s. Maybe it’s all of the above. It doesn’t make for a fun read.

Or maybe it’s just sloppy writing. Like this: “… passed round sandwiches, cheese, and biscuits from the cooler. ‘Have we got any biscuits?’ ‘We do,’ said Penny, holding out a packet.” That would be those things that were just passed around with the sandwiches and cheese. Oh, and “‘I’d hate for this paint to fall into the wrong hands.’ ‘No, I’m sure you wouldn’t,’ said Penny” … Um. That doesn’t mean what you meant it to mean.

When one young man appears on the scene, his introduction is … well, not to put too fine a point on it, it’s a failure. The initial description is perfectly ordinary. And then suddenly in the midst of talking to our heroes he shuts down and demonstrates behavior that makes it obvious that he is mentally and/or emotionally handicapped – but it was so out of the blue that I was completely knocked out of the story. It’s later made clear that this character’s challenges are obvious to anyone who meets him, but the only indicator the reader is given is that he stumbles over a long-ish word in one of the first bits of dialogue he’s given.

As soon as I read that Gareth was being sent in to clean the debris out of a fireplace in the mansion where he’s volunteering, I had a horrible feeling that some priceless piece of evidence would be found stuffed up the chimney. And so it was. That’s much the way the whole mystery is solved – through “why, look what I have found!” and coincidence, and a fourth-hand account of something that happened (*counts on fingers*) ninety years ago, of which they have no real proof.

The setting is something else that should be very strong in a cozy – I mean, these things are pretty much the point in this subgenre, aren’t they? But apart from names like “Eirlys” and “Bethan” and “Gwrych”, and a smattering of Welsh … this could be picked up and set down in any English country village without disturbing a stick or stone of the story. Which is not, of course, to say that I wanted everyone’s speech written out to reflect the dialect, or for anyone to burst into Welsh more often than happened – but there had to be a reason the series was set in Wales, no? I’d have liked to have seen it.

Something that could be considered very much a cozy mystery “thing” – and which became really tiresome before long – was the fact that just about every passage – not every chapter, every passage – seemed to begin with, end with, or otherwise feature food. I may not know much about these characters, but I sure know what they ate.

Finally, I was just deeply annoyed by what was a clever pun the first time I saw it, over five years ago, but … really, “Game of Thorns” has been done.

No – one more thing. I wonder what the connection is between Elizabeth J. Duncan and Jeanne Dams, author of the Dorothy Martin mysteries – because Dorothy and her husband Gareth make a really odd and rather pointless-seeming cameo appearance in this book. It was weird.

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

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