Two Outstanding Whodunnits for Mystery Readers
By Jennie Hansen

Mystery readers will enjoy a double-decker treat this month, with outstanding mysteries of two completely different flavors.  Rounding out this month’s selections is a slice-of-time novel by a new author.

Methods of Madnessby Stephanie Black begins as an innocent enough romance, but we soon learn someone is playing mind games and they’re not so innocent. Emily Ramsey suffered a double tragedy three years earlier; her younger sister was hit and killed by a hit-and-run driver as she was putting up balloons on the mailbox the night of Emily’s bridal shower – and her fianc vanished without a trace that same night. 

Now Emily wants to move forward with her life.  She’s engaged again and she must return her previous engagement ring to her former fianc’s mother, a woman who doesn’t want the ring and can’t accept that her son is dead.

Emily’s new fianc, Zach, isn’t without problems either.  His ex-girlfriend, Monica, wants him back and she has no qualms about playing dirty to get what she wants. Then there’s the small matter of Zach’s reason for leaving his former position in another city to settle in a distant small town.

Her sister’s best friend who has become her best friend, her former fianc’s friends and family, her parents, and even Monica’s friends get involved when someone starts leaving threatening messages.  Terrible things happen – or is Emily only imagining events that never really happened at all?  Is she in danger or is she suffering a stress-induced mental breakdown?

Black is a master at plot development, and her stories draw the reader in and don’t let him go until the story is finished.  Count on reading well into the night once you pick up Methods of Madness. Characters are well developed too.  I prefer stronger heroines than Emily, but she is realistic, believable, and draws the reader’s sympathy. Zack is likable too, but he is not as well-developed as Emily. The book is set in a small California town, but it is a story that could take place in any American small town.

There was one point-of-view shift that bothered me, but overall this book is a good example of a technically well-written novel that has also been copyedited well.  Though it delivers a generous number of shivers, this book is an absolute delight and will certainly be in the running for a Whitney award.

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Josi S. Kilpack serves up a bit of English Triflewith her tenth novel, which is also the second culinary mystery featuring nosy Sadie Hoffmiller.  Sadie is a widow of twenty years, in her late fifties, and mother of two adult children.  She is also food oriented, enjoying to a huge extent both cooking and eating, with her food obsession playing a prominent role in her mysteries.

English Trifle is set on a country estate in England and revolves around Sadie’s unfortunate discovery of a body in the sitting room.  The luckless victim has been done in by a fireplace poker.  Sadie and her daughter Breanna are enjoying a week-long visit to England as guests of Breanna’s boyfriend, Liam, the heir apparent to his father, the Earl of Garnett. 

The Earl is seriously ill and in a coma.  When the body disappears and Sadie begins to suspect the household staff and Liam’s cousin of being less than truthful, not only about the murder and missing body but concerning matters concerning Liam’s inheritance, she sets out to find some answers.  Her frustration escalates when the police fail to take her observations seriously.

I like this book better than the first Sadie Hoffmiller mystery.  Lemon Tart was a fun read, but predictable.  In this one Sadie is more likeable and smart rather than a snoopy busybody, and references to her age are more believable.  And like an English trifle, a layered confection composed of alternating layers of pudding, cream, and fruit, this mystery has multiple tiers of complexity.  There’s more than one motive at play, along with a mixture of clues leading to partial resolutions, red herrings, and dead ends.

Recipes for English dishes are liberally sprinkled throughout the book, usually at the conclusion of each chapter.  These are thoroughly tested recipes that readers are invited to try.  If like me, you enjoy the mystery, but skip the recipes, you won’t miss anything pertinent to the story by skipping the recipes.  Those who enjoy trying new recipes are certain to please their taste testers.

Reading English Trifle is a lot like playing the popular board game Clue.  There are so many possibilities!  The characters are interesting, the plot is carefully crafted, and the setting has an authentic feel.  Kilpack handled well the placement of two independent American women juggling their enthusiasm for English traditions and restraint with their deeply held convictions of American equality and impatience for getting things done now.  English Trifle is an excellent read and will be enjoyed by teens and adults of either gender – another strong Whitney contender.

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Uncut Diamonds by Karen Jones Gowen isn’t for everyone.  It’s not a plot-driven book, but simply a “slice of life.” Characterization is stronger than plot. Those who enjoy slower paced novels filled with day-to-day trivia rather than action will enjoy this one, particularly younger women who can relate to juggling childcare responsibility and financial struggles.

The book is set during the severe recession back in the late seventies, while Jimmy Carter was president and fuel bills were higher than house payments.  It’s the story of a young woman, Marcie McGill, her husband, Shawn, their five children, and her sisters.  It chronicles the day-to day-events in their lives as they struggle with inflation, job loss, severe weather, family dynamics, and the subsequent strains on the McGills’ marriage.  The story is set in Illinois, where the young family is actively involved in a small LDS branch with multiple callings.  Marcie’s father is a Methodist minister and her younger sister, Cindy, is the only other member of her family who belongs to the Church.

Marcie is involved in typing up her grandmother’s handwritten journal.  Excerpts from the journal are used to parallel the events in Marcie’s life.  There’s also a subtle parallel to the current economic depression.

There are few typos in the book and Gowen has a good command of language. There are a few expletives that may bother some readers, but they’re used in a pretty inoffensive way.

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METHODS OF MADNESS by Stephanie Black, published by Covenant Communications, softcover, 245 pages, $15.95

ENGLISH TRIFLE by Josi S. Kilpack, published by Deseret Book, softcover, 346 pages, $17.95

UNCUT DIAMONDS by Karen Jones Gowen, published by WiDo, softcover, 356 pages, $15.95

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