Rosemary Harris: The Big Dirt Nap and Jane Cleland: Deadly Appraisal

Rosemary Harris and Jane Cleland do many book events together, which makes perfect sense, since their books complement each other beautifully. Harris writes about gardener Paula Holliday, and Cleland about antiques expert Josie Prescott. Both bring real world knowledge to their respective topics (Harris is herself a master gardener, and Cleland has owned an antiques and rare book business), and both women share an obvious affection for mysteries as a genre, which shows in their books. While Harris’ character doesn’t actually have a mystery paperback at her bedside, Cleland’s character usually has a prime Rex Stout title to help her fall asleep. Again, the real world creeps in—Cleland is a giant fan of Stout and Nero Wolfe in real life. The verisimilitude adds a lot to the books.

I’m going to review the books generationally, with apologies to both authors. Harris is a newcomer to the business—her first book, Pushing Up Daisies, came out last winter, and her character, Paula Holliday, who has given up a cool job in New York City and moved out to the burbs is still on the hip side. She might be in her early 30’s, but when she needs a “good” outfit she’s actually able to produce a pair of leather pants for the occasion. Paula occasionally becomes upset during the course of the story when various service employees call her “ma’am” or “lady” (all I can say to that is, suck it up sister!) My point here is that she’s younger than the average mystery heroine and it makes her pretty refreshing as a main character.

In this novel, Paula has agreed to meet her best friend Lucy at the Titans Hotel for an all expense paid weekend (Lucy still has the cool NYC job) and she’s snagged a few bucks from the local paper to writer about the corpse flower the hotel has in the lobby which is about to bloom. The flowers, which are gigantic, only bloom every seven years, and when they do they produce an odor not unlike decaying flesh (hence the name). Paula, waiting for her friend Lucy to arrive, strikes up a short conversation with a man in the hotel bar, one Nick Vigoriti. Shortly after their conversation (with Lucy still nowhere in sight) Nick turns up dead in the dumpster behind the hotel.

While the story and resolution are in the traditional mystery story mode, the threads Harris draw into her plot are not. As in the first book, the sidebar characters are strong ones: the shady hotel owner; the tormented young Russian girl, Oksana; the young woman in charge of the corpse flower (her enthusiasm seems to exceed Paula’s); even a cashier at the mini mart (he of the “ma’am” remark); the missing and possibly shady Crawford brothers; and the cranky homicide cop heading up the investigation The rotating and complex cast of villains, as well as the residents of the small town where the Titans hotel is located, all add spice to the story. Lucy’s disappearance is of course tied to the central mystery, and Harris’ account of Paula finding her lost friend is a real classic.

This is a light, enjoyable, and at the same time thoughtful mystery.

Cleland’s Josie Prescott is a little older than Paula Holliday—she’s been around the block a few times, but not too many. The seasoning gives her character some memorable spice. The set up for her novel truly is classic—the book opens at a Gala antiques auction, sponsored by Josie’s antiques auction house, Prescott’s, and before the night has ended one of the main organizers of the event has succumbed to cyanide poisoning, right before Josie’s very eyes. Josie, who didn’t know or especially like the dead woman, Maisey, is still traumatized by seeing her die right in front of her, and it makes her judgement of subsequent events sometimes shaky. The book actually has a central theme: are perceptions the same as reality? As Josie digs for details of the dead woman’s life, she realizes her perception of her has been all wrong.

The one person who Josie can trust, her boyfriend Ty, is out of town at the deathbead of his Aunt Trina, and isn’t around to tell Josie to snap out of it. That’s left to her practical lawyer, Max. The fact that the boyfriend is out of town downplays the romantic aspect present in the first book, and I thought it was an effective way for the author to delve more deeply into Josie’s personality. As the murder investigation proceeds it emerges not (as often happens in mysteries) that Josie is the prime suspect, but that she might have been the intended victim. When a car tries to run her down one night that supposition becomes cemented as fact for everyone but Josie, who still desperately wants Maisey and not herself to have been the intended victim.

Along the way Josie’s perceptions of her co-workers and friends are challenged and tested as she figures out who she can trust and who she can’t. The lesson of this book might be “go with your gut”, but the killer is still unexpected. As it turns out, Josie’s perceptions of the killer were completely off base. I also truly enjoy the detail Cleland includes about running her antiques business as well as details of the antiques themselves. There are several objects where the provenance has to be traced and verified, and that was as interesting a mystery to me as anything else in the novel. Josie’s practical, generous and intelligent personality win the day, and that makes this series one I’d be happy to revisit.