Sharon Fiffer has become one of the more reliable, and enjoyable, cozy writers around. For one thing, her actual prose is lovely, which is always a pleasure. For another, she has a sturdy cast of characters that flesh out her stories and give them lots of depth. Like my other favorite in this series, Scary Stuff, Backstage Stuff finds antiques picker/private eye (PPI) Jane Wheel back in her childhood home, Kankakee, Illinois. Part of the reason I enjoy Jane back in Kankakee so much instead of her native Chicago is the presence of her always fascinating mother, Nellie, co-proprietor (with Jane’s dad, natch) of the E-Z Way Inn.
Jane is in an in-between place. She and her long time husband are on the brink of divorce, and she’s not only adjusting to her husband’s absence but the absence of her now college age son. An empty nest on steroids. Jane seems less grieved about the end of her marriage than perplexed – she’s trying to figure out what’s next. One of the next things is the new cell phone her son has gotten her, which makes for a pretty funny opening scene where she can’t figure out that the noise the phone is making is actually ringing, and her insistence to her departing son that she can indeed “tech.” Uh, text.
Luckily, as soon as her son is off on a plane, Jane’s pal and business associate Tim Lowry presses her into service, helping him to process a huge estate in (guess where) Kankakee, to ready it for sale. He also asks for her help in producing a local production of a play written by the deceased owner of the house they’ll be working in, Murder in the Eekaknak Valley. To Jane’s complete astonishment, her mother has a part in the play. Naturally she accompanies Tim and thus Fiffer is able to deftly include two classic mystery tropes – the backstage mystery, and the old house mystery. The old house seems to be inhabited by a creepy ventriloquists’ doll, Mr. Bumbles. Mr. Bumbles seems to turn up everywhere, and whenever he does, it’s the signal of something terrible.
Fiffer is always able to balance a gentle humor with a clever plot. She’s really one of the more skilled plotters of the traditional mystery at work at the moment – her clues are tricky but fair, and the resolution is always a surprise. Added to this is the nice background of antiques that she brings to every novel, as well as her skill in creating a rich cast of background characters. In this novel, the characters include both the cast of the play and the remaining family of the dead man, the Kendalls. As always, the real backbone of the story is Jane and her family and by extension, Tim. Nellie is a character who cannot be denied – hardworking, no-nonsense, unsentimental, and to Jane’s surprise, a gifted actress. The interplay between Jane and her mother is one of the strongest elements of the book. This is a very enjoyable, clever and ultimately moving story. Happy reading!