Monday, November 17, 2014

Death, Snow, and Mistletoe by Valerie Malmont

Reviewed by Jeanne

Christmas time’s a-comin’ to the little town of Lickin Creek, an Appalachian town in Pennsylvania and preparations are well under way.  There’s the usual arguing about the town decorations, the Christmas pageant, and who—or what—will stand in for baby Jesus in the living Nativity scene.  Tori Miracle, relative newcomer and editor/reporter/photographer of the local paper, is alternately exasperated and bemused by it all.  Then things suddenly take a turn for the worse:  a child goes missing and Tori is sure the witnesses aren’t telling all they know, and a citizen drops dead from cyanide poisoning.  With the chief of police (who is also Tori’s fiancé) out of town, Tori feels she needs to step up and step in.

I read a lot of cozy mysteries, the little paperbacks cats or pies or quilts on the cover.  Nowadays it seems every book has to have a “gimmick”:  the heroine has some sort of special hobby, a quirk, a love triangle, and/or the book has an exotic setting.  The books include recipes or craft patterns or sewing tips. Some aren’t bad, but most aren’t compelling, either.  It’s easy to read a few chapters and then wander off, picking the book back up a week later to see if I remember anything at all about it.  If I don’t, away it goes. If I at least remember the cat, I’ll persevere.   

I’m not sure it’s all the writer’s fault, either.    I’ve heard that in some cases, publishers approach writers to do a series and hand them a template (city girl moves to Wyoming to escape heartbreak, ends up with a herd of llamas, is attracted to the local fry cook, and they solve mysteries with the help of the ghost of a lost gold miner, treating the reader to tips on shearing camelids, short order recipes, and a dose of the supernatural.  I hope this is a totally made up example, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find there is such a series.) The writer is then expected to work within these parameters. It’s no wonder some of the books turn out to have a sort of assembly line feel to them. 

To return to the topic at hand, Death, Snow, and Mistletoe turned out to be a bit different.  Oh, sure, at first it seemed pretty standard;  but I found myself sneaking back to read just one more chapter when I really should have been doing something more productive, like trying to find my couch under all the mail.  There were some plot twists that took me totally by surprise, a good sense of place, and a lead character who can’t be reduced to a cliché even if she sounds like one: a former New Yorker who moved to Lickin Creek to be near her fiancé and who is making a niche for herself. She’s starting to learn a bit of the local customs, and can almost differentiate Amish from Mennonite.   She’s living in a drafty mansion rent free, but just keeping the place above freezing costs a fortune; the townsfolk regard her as an outsider; and of course, everyone knows more about running a newspaper. She has a TV psychic as a temporary houseguest,  a couple of cats, and wonders if her fiancé is really coming back or if he’s changed his mind about this whole wedding thing.  As I said, all pretty much standard for a cozy these days, but there’s a bit more subtly, more nuance, to this book.  Maybe it’s because this series began before the current formula became ingrained, giving the author more freedom to take the story and the characters where she wanted.

I began to understand why the folks on DorothyL, the mystery lover’s list, named Valerie Malmont as an author whose work they missed. Apparently, her publisher felt the books weren’t selling well enough and ended the series back in 2003; sadly,  Death, Snow, and Mistletoe was the next to last book.  

And yes, I’m going to read the others. In order they are:

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