Judy Clemens’ first novel, Til the Cows Come Home, made me cry buckets, and that’s partial proof of her adeptness at creating vivid and believable characters. She also has one of the more unique heroines in the mystery universe – Stella Crown is a dairy farmer with tattoos who rides a Harley for fun and hangs out with bikers. She lives with her friend Lucy, who helps with farm duties, and is shortly to be married, requiring the reluctant Stella (she doesn’t own a dress) to be the maid of honor. As the book opens Stella’s friend Jordan, sound man for a well know Philadelphia band, has gotten Stella and Lucy free tickets and a backstage pass to a concert. Lucy and her fiancee attend with Stella and her boyfriend, Nick, but things go wrong pretty quickly.
For one thing, Nick doesn’t seem to be feeling well, but he can’t or won’t explain why to Stella. For another, the end of the concert brings an unexpected explosion, the hasty and chaotic evacuation of the concert hall, and the eventual discovery of a dead body. This is all pretty standard mystery stuff except for the fact the Clemens gives the rock band a real feeling of credibility; she gives the dairy farm a feeling of credibility and reality; and she gives the various relationships in the novel, but especially Stella and Nick’s, a real depth and complexity. In fact all of the characters are very recognizably complicated and understandable humans, so as she veers from the light hearted – Stella trying on various bridesmaids’ dresses – to the more serious, Nick’s illness, all of it is handled with the same expertise.
As the story progresses the reader may become a bit annoyed with Stella’s behavior towards Nick – I wouldn’t want to give too much away, here – but at the same time her reaction isn’t the one a plaster saint would have, but the one an actual woman would have. Now Stella does have some of the more saintly mystery heroine qualities – she’s very strong and brave, and she’s an incredibly loyal friend, especially to Jordan, who falls under suspicion for the murder – but all in all she seems like a person you might not only actually know, but a person you would want to know. Stella Crown makes checking in with the next Judy Clemens installment a real necessity.