Friday, February 5, 2010

Stirring Up Strife

Jennifer Stanley's Stirring Up Strife (St. Martin's Minotaur, 2010) is a well-plotted and well-written mystery that is as fun to read for the subplots as it is for the central "whodunit" puzzle. The premise is this: Cooper Lee, an unlikely female office machine repair technician, has a chance encounter with a client whose jammed copy machine Cooper is called in to repair. That client, Brooke Hughes, has an instant connection with Cooper and invites her to attend Bible study sessions at Hope Street Church. Cooper, feeling down and out after recently breaking up with her longtime boyfriend Drew and moving back in with her parents, could use a little light in her life, so she decides to visit Hope Street.

The Bible study is all aflutter when one of their beloved church members, Wesley Hughes, has been arrested for the murder of his wife, Brooke! Cooper and members of the Bible study, who know Wesley and cannot imagine him having committed the crime, set out to prove his innocence through old fashioned gumshoe detective work.

The strength of Stirring up Strife is in its strong plot, and while all of the characters have some relationship to it, we also feel they have their own lives. Stanley does an excellent job of balancing our introduction to these lives (such as Cooper's parents, various members of the Bible study group, etc.) and offering action and clues to solve the mystery. One of the best subplots is Cooper's second chance at love with a member of the Bible study group; we are cheering for her all the way. Stanley is also great at evoking the atmosphere of urban Richmond, Virginia, the setting for this series.

As many readers who are drawn to this book because of its church-ish theme could potentially be driven away by it. However, I can attest that Stanley does a really good job of balancing the faith/God/prayer themes without much syrupy sentimentality or even a drivel of preachy rhetoric. That is a much more difficult task to do than Stanley makes it seem. While the Bible quotations at the beginning of every chapter did seem to get a bit heavy at times (and the more orthodox among readers might object to their contextualization), I found myself always reading them and finding resonance in the chapter that followed. This is a rather bold move for commercial mass market fiction, but Stanley is up to the job.

My qualms with the book are minor but bear mentioning because I am seeing them as a trend in many cozies. I am of a personal mind that authors should stop writing "clucked" as a term of expressive action. I'm pretty sure people don't cluck, or even if they do it must be rarer than what we're reading in a lot of cozy mysteries these days (maybe the tsk tsk??). I'm also not a fan of characters who refer to their vehicles with made-up cutesy proper names based on the vehicles size and/or color (here there are two, "Cherry-O" and "Sweet Pea," and you can probably guess one is red and the other, yep, green). It kind of removed me from the story every time I came across those things, clucked and proper-named autos. I would also lose Quinton's hymn lyrics, which as printed in full within the text read like doggerel even though they would be appropriate set to the right music in a church environment.

These small annoyances, which may well be just my own hangups anyway, do not detract from this excellent first entry into the Hope Street Church Mystery Series. The solid and believable finish is as satisfying as what came before it, which is the mark of a good mystery. I will look forward to the next book, Path of the Wicked with anticipation.