My husband hates the word “plopped.” I feel the same about “quirky” a ubiquitous word used in describing many, many cozies. But sometimes “quirky” (just like “plopped”) actually applies. In the case of Susan Cox’s Theo Bogart mysteries, I was surprised at almost every turn, and delightfully so, by the array of characters and situations presented by this obviously talented new writer. Quirky does apply.
This is book two in this series, the first one winning the Minotaur/Mystery Writers of America First Crime novel award, and it’s been a long time coming. The first novel, The Man on the Washing Machine, was published in 2015. Theophania Bogart is a poor little rich girl. She’s fled a terrible family tragedy back home in England and landed in San Francisco, where she’s established a comfortable new life for herself.
She’s part of a small neighborhood within the city, and she’s a small business owner. Her store, “Aromas” sells high class soaps and lotions, and her best buddy, Nat, owns a coffee shop “The Coffee” down the street. The neighborhood is in a battle with a woman who wants to destroy their – yes, quirky – neighborhood with a tower of fancy condos. No one likes her. When Theo discovers her dead in her car one morning, she’s drawn into the investigation, as the woman’s death seems to touch many elements of her own life.
This sounds like a pretty standard cozy set-up, really, down to the adorable, classy English grandfather who has followed Theo to San Francisco. When a man who appears to be a Russian priest shows up in Theo’s shop looking for her grandfather shortly after the murder, and Theo reaches out to her grandfather, only to be told they must meet in person and not discuss this over the phone, the plot really becomes tricky.
Cox ties together a number of elements in this original and surprising narrative. She creates a cozy universe for her character – but it’s San Francisco, so her universe includes a homeless man, a priest running a day shelter, her gay coffee shop owning sidekick, and an assortment of neighbors as well as her employees. One of them is a computer whiz (and hacker) and one is getting through high school on his own despite the best efforts of his negligent father.
Then there’s Theo’s boyfriend, who is off at law school but who appears halfway through the book, stirring up all kinds of conflicting emotions for her. Her new friends don’t know about the notorious tragedy she’s fled from (spelled out, again, about halfway through) and she’s reluctant to expose her past and be tracked down by the world’s paparazzi.
Her grandfather turns out to have a surprising past of his own which reveals itself throughout the novel, and which ties into the mystery. The mystery includes some body parts found in the microwave at the coffee shop, a disappearing homeless man, spies, Russian priests, an orphanage, and a main character who is finding herself through solving crimes. That last is the only actual traditional cozy element. Cox has more in common with, again, quirky writers like David Handler, Lawrence Block (in Bernie Rhodenbarr mode) or E.J. Copperman than she does with the more traditional cozy universe. As a twist, her dog is cranky and there’s no cat to be seen anywhere (except for feral city cats).
As I read I was captivated, surprised, puzzled, delighted and all around beguiled by this book. I loved the characters, I loved the setting, I loved Theo and wanted to know more about her. I was impressed with the plotting which seems like a mish mash of elements until the talented Cox at last draws the threads together at the end. Clues were provided for the astute reader throughout, and I caught some, but not all, of them. What a great reading experience, one I hope will be repeated with another book sooner rather than later.