Elaine Viets: Shop Till You Drop

I’m not generally a cozy reader, but for some reason I picked this book up and was hooked by the end of the first chapter. Viets’ sense of humor is never cloying, her central character, Helen, is smart, and the premise is wonderful. Helen is a clerk in an ultra fancy boutique in Ft. Lauderdale – a boutique so fancy that customers are buzzed in only at the whim of the manager – she rejects women whom she thinks are too heavy, who have ugly shoes, hair or purses, etc. (I know which side of the door I’d be on). It’s so fancy there are no price tags on the clothes – if you have to ask, you can’t afford the $500 halter top – and the clerks aren’t allowed to sit down. Viets’ description of a typical customer is classic:

“Tiffany was the woman with the bad eye job. She did look permanently startled…but it was cute on her. ..She wore a candy-pink pants outfit with frothy ruffles down the front and around the hips. Her platinum hair looked like spun sugar and her lips were cherry red. Her implants bulged out of her blouse. Tiffany’s elderly boyfriend had paid for her D cups…because ‘he liked to get his hands on his money’.”

Helen is working off the books for cash because she’s on the run from a bad marital situation, and it puts her in a perennial bind. She lives at what sounds like a classic 50’s Florida apartment building, and hangs out by the pool with a woman who takes her parrot everywhere, and is most fond of her landlady, Margery, who wears only purple. For some reason all this adorableness is related in such a matter of fact style that it seems normal for Helen to live next door to an invisible pothead. It’s just part of a very effective and textured landscape that adds considerably to the book’s charm. As Helen struggles believably to pay her rent and afford the kind of clothes she must wear to work at Julianna’s, she becomes firmly established in your psyche as you read (at least she did in mine). Helen is one of the more real, accessible, and likeable women I’ve read in recent mystery fiction.

Viets also serves up a dandy little plot that involves dead bodies in barrels, blackmail, and a missing boss – leaving Helen free to run the shop herself without supervision for awhile. The mystery that crops up seems to evolve organically out of the whole story and is satisfactorily resolved by the end of the book, even if Helen’s money troubles aren’t. There’s a second one due in December, and I couldn’t be looking forward to it with greater anticipation.