Friday, June 5, 2009

Murder is Binding

Lorna Barrett (the nom de plume of writer Lorraine Bartlett) has written an excellent first mystery novel in Murder is Binding (Berkley Prime Crime, 2008). The setting is the small town of Stoneham, New Hampshire, where local developer Bob Kelly has leased downtown property to a series of small bookshop owners (each shop focuses on a particular genre, like cookbooks, mystery, history, etc.). Tricia Miles, the owner of mystery bookshop Haven't Got a Clue, is the lead character in this story and in the series.

When the owner of Tricia's neighboring store, Doris Gleason of The Cookery, turns up dead, Tricia is left to sort out the mess in order to provide peace of mind not only for herself, but for the tranquil Stoneham. Tricia's sister, Angelica breezes into town for what turns out to be more than just a short visit, and ends up helping Tricia solve the murder. What's more, the sheriff is intent to pin the Doris's murder on Tricia. The "cozy" meter registers pretty high here: small, idyllic town (more like paradise... a town full of bookstores!); Tricia lives above her bookshop; Angelica is a gourmet cook; a meddling sheriff; and more.

Lorna Barrett is a mystery writer of great talent. I especially appreciated the way she brought the retail environment of Haven't Got a Clue to life, a venue I suspect that will provide endless opportunities for future plots (Susan Wittig Albert has used China Bayles's herb business in this way for upwards of 17 books!). Barrett is also part of a new generation of cozy writers who have endowed their characters with complicated social relationships. The subplot of familial fractures in the sister-bond between Tricia and Angelica will offer many opportunities to really understand the motivation for these characters in future novels, as it did in Binding. She also touched on the generational problems we all will face in the characters of Mr. Everett, Grace and Doris Gleason (I won't spoil the plot by giving details!). At the end of the book, I was also left wondering if Mr. Everett and Grace have a future together?

There are other themes Ms. Barrett may pursue, such as community development and the arrival of "big box" stores in small towns (a theme also present in Sheila Connolly's One Bad Apple, a cozy set in neighboring Massachusetts). I'm also looking forward to the development of Angelica's relocation to Stoneham, and how that affects her relationship with Tricia (and her business).

My only quarrel is with the character of Sheriff Wendy Adams, whose motivation was somewhat difficult to believe. If Adams is to be Tricia's foil throughout the series, we will need to learn much more about her and her background. I realize this is not a police procedural, but it seems that any sheriff (even in a small town) would want to give the aesthetic of a proper investigation. This is not a major criticism and certainly does not detract from the many enjoyments of the novel. Personally I didn't find any redeeming quality in Adams, and I'd like to see her knocked off (or moved away) soon, but I am only a reader and it is always up to the author to populate the universe they create.

The action toward the last third of the book was downright suspenseful, and the climactic scene (in the bookshop of course) is much more realistic than one typically finds in a cozy mystery. I applaud Ms. Barrett's first outing and look forward to the next installments.