Ellen Hart: The Lost Women of Lost Lake

Ellen Hart is the best writer you’ve never heard of. This is her 26th book, the 18th in her fine Jane Lawless series. Jane is a Minneapolis restaurant owner who solves murders in her spare time – thus, she’s the very definition of amateur detective. She’s gay and since the death of her partner Christine, she’s drifted from relationship to relationship. Jane is also the calm center of the storm in every novel; while everyone around her reacts to events, Jane deducts and analyzes.

Hart is also one of the best contemporary practitioners of the traditional mystery – if you’re a fan of Agatha Christie, you’re probably going to enjoy Ellen Hart, with her crisp plotting, no nonsense pacing, and vivid characters. Several of her novels are among my favorite contemporary mysteries – The Iron Girl and An Intimate Ghost being particular favorites. This latest novel is a worthy addition to a solid series.

Hart often structures her stories using traumatic past events that are shaping the present. In this novel, the past of two women in the Minnesota resort town of Lost Lake come to light, and because one of the women, Tessa, is a friend of Jane and the flamboyant Cordelia Thorne (Jane’s sidekick, though if Cordelia were actually real I don’t think she’d care for that term), the two women step in to help when Tessa sprains her foot. The sprain, of course, is only the tip of the iceberg.

It becomes clear that Tessa and another woman in town were responsible for a death, and there’s a stranger in town asking uncomfortable questions. When a few deaths follow the stranger’s arrival, there’s a perfect snarl of tangled relationships, old tensions, and kinship that make Jane’s look at the crimes a difficult task. One of the threads involves the nephew of Tessa and her partner, Jill, who has run away from home and come to Lost Lake to live with his aunts. One involves the nephew’s former girlfriend who seems to be involved with his thuggish former best friend, and of course the main thread involves the rearing up of Tessa’s past as it threatens to engulf everything in its path.

As always, Jane’s deductive skills are superior as she untangles the web of circumstance and mysterious past events that lead to a solution. What makes Hart a contemporary mystery writer is the fact that her characters are fully fleshed out, and the psychological underpinnings are complex and realistic. She may tell a story with Christie’s bravura, but she also brings a contemporary storyteller’s toolbox to the table. There’s nothing not to like in these novels. Dig in.