Murder on the Toy Town Express – Barbara Early

I think I start every review of a cozy mystery pretty much along the same lines: they’re either horrendous or wonderful, with very little in between. I’ve even started developing a list of Cozy Cardinal Sins and tropes. Such as – –

1) Heroine is a small business owner
This book/series: check – but it’s okay. This little shop sounds like it would be viable in real life; it’s run by family; it sells something that legitimately can be lucrative.

2) There’s a love triangle
This book/series: check – but it’s okay. Normally this is a bad, bad idea – but it works here. The heroine has genuine affection for both men in her life, and it’s handled in a way that feels fairly realistic.

3) Heroine is surrounded by wise-cracking family, friends, and co-workers.
This book/series: check – but it’s okay. Because it’s funny. “‘You have a mind like an elephant’s.’ ‘Yeah, wrinkled, gray, and way too much junk in the trunk. But that’s totally irrelephant.’ I rolled my eyes and glared at him. Otherwise, he’d be making elephant jokes all day.” That took the joke and pushed it too far – and it’s so silly I had to smile.

4) Author thinks she’s skilled at sharp, clever, witty
This book/series: check – but it’s okay. Because she is. “Cathy’s fictional version was a little more embellished, containing spear guns, spies, bikinis, an occasional zombie, and a whole lot of steamy embraces. She insisted readers would need something spicier.” “But Dad had spun his words as adeptly as some cult leader, playing on my pride, my craving for his approval, my sense of justice, and that infernal inherited curiosity. I said nothing, but my next sip of coffee tasted an awful lot like Kool-Aid.” (It was Flavor Aid, but that’s just quibbling.)

5) Author thinks she’s skilled at metaphor and simile
This book/series: check – but it’s okay. Because she is. I don’t think I’ve ever come across a description of someone’s “stomach tied into a macramé plant hanger” before, and I like it. Oh, and this is lovely: “Jack’s mother was a riddle wrapped in a lemon inside a porcupine.” I want to use that in conversation. One more: “If he’d looked any more sheepish, he’d be eating grass in the fields and sprouting a thick wool coat.”

6) The plot is filled with red herrings and has elements that are over the top, far-fetched
This book/series: check – but it’s okay. Because Barbara Early can write. And she can plot. She can throw in a few left turns and wacky bits, and fold it into a story that hangs together and comes to a satisfying conclusion.

7) At least as important as the plot (if not more important) is the cast of characters
This book/series: check – but it’s okay. Because these characters have a depth that you don’t usually see in a light read. The family that runs the toy shop at the center of the series has a legitimate history, and it’s not all Norman Rockwell and jokes. These folks have been through stuff, and Barbara Early obviously feels a real warmth towards them. The beauty is that she writes them so well that I do too.

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

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