I confess that, despite knowing better, I was attracted to both the cover and the blurb for this cozy mystery, and was happy to get an ARC some time ago. However, what with one thing and another, it took me a while to get to it.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve had a really hard time reading anything new to me, for going on two years now. (Pity me.) Therefore, any novel I manage to read all the way through these days feels remarkable in some way, on that basis alone.
As usual, reader beware: there’s a romance alongside the mystery, but there’s no sex on page, and very little ‘objectionable’ language.
The Book Club Murders, by Leslie Nagel
I didn’t know before I started reading the story, but this is Ms Nagel debut release. It is also the first in a series set in Oakwood, OH.
I confess that, after reading a few chapters, I did suspect that this was either a debut, or perhaps a second book, because some of the elements of the story seem to fit rather awkwardly next to each other–such as the romance between our intrepid leading lady, one Charlotte “Charley” Carpenter, and the cop in charge of solving the improbable murders that, apparently out of the blue, are happening in the very quiet community of Oakwood.
Here’s the blurb:
Charley Carpenter has poured heart and soul into her clothing store, Old Hat Vintage Fashions. She’ll do anything to make it a success—even join the stuffy Agathas Book Club in order to cultivate customers among the wealthy elite of Oakwood, Ohio.
Although mixing with the most influential women in town has its advantages, Charley finds the endless gossip a high price to pay. But after two women with close ties to the Agathas are brutally murdered, everyone falls under threat—and suspicion. When key evidence indicates that both murders are the work of the same hand, Charley realizes that the killer has arranged each corpse in perfect imitation of crime scenes from the Club’s murder mystery reading list. She uses her membership in the Club to convince Detective Marcus Trenault to use her as an inside informant. Not that he could stop her anyway.
Intelligent, fearless, and every bit as stubborn as Marc is, Charley soon learns the Agathas aren’t the only ones with secrets to protect. Passions explode as she and Marc must race against time to prevent another murder. And if Charley’s not careful, she may find herself becoming the killer’s next plot twist.
For once, most of the blurb actually relates to the story within. The last paragraph, though, is trash.
Most of the story is seen from Charley’s point of view, which works very well given the setting and story, but which means that when, somewhere in the last third, we get a few chapters from Marc’s point of view, it’s…well, not jarring, exactly; more, ill-fitting.
I liked Charley, despite her making a couple of rather idiotic decisions–for example, putting off telling Marc something about the first murder that she knows the police doesn’t know, because reasons. I liked her anyway, because her thought processes felt realistic and appropriate to her, her circumstances, her baggage, etc. At no point we jump from a sensible woman to a super detective, and we never truly descend into TSTL territory.
I also liked the fact that most of the secondary characters in the novel are neither sequel bait nor two dimensional caricatures existing solely to serve the plot. Charley has family, friends, neighbors. There are cops and detectives and desk sergeants, and so on and so forth, who actually interact with each other, and who are not exclusively there to showcase our two main characters.
And I liked that I didn’t guess the identity of the killer–I haven’t re-read the story, but I don’t believe there were any hints dropped at any time prior to the actual reveal.
So, as a mystery, it rocked along pretty danged well.
With that said, the novel would have worked a lot better if the romance thread had been left out entirely. It’s not just that there is zero chemistry between the two characters, on the page, but that the writing in the scenes where the reader is meant to feel their mutual attraction, feels awkward. Perhaps a romance between them, developed over the course of five or six books, would have worked better for me, but as it is, the whole thing felt like an unwelcome intrusion.
I would also have liked to know more about a couple of the secondary characters. For example, I never quite understood how Lawrence, Charley’s father’s physical therapist, ended up living with them–or how Charley could afford to pay him, and to support herself and her father, by owning and operating a small vintage/used clothing store in a small town.¹
In the end, The Book Club Murders is a nice little cozy mystery, competently if not brilliantly written. 6.75 out of 10.
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¹The penny-pincher in me just doesn’t see how that math works out, and asking those questions truly distracted me from the story, but I just don’t have an idealized view of small town USA.