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Thursday, February 07, 2008

Hallelujah! MacInerney Restores My Faith in Cozy Mysteries.

If you happened to read my last rant about cozy mysteries, you know I have just about given up on the genre. I'm tired of the fluff - poor writing, predictable plots, depthless characters and all the rest. From Joanna Fluke to J.B. Stanley to M.C. Beaton to Tamar Myers, I have scoured my library for decent cozy reads, but to no avail. Then, I stumbled upon Karen MacInerney (actually, Kay recommended her, so I put her on my list for the Triple 8 Challenge) and ... voila! My faith has been restored.

(image from Barnes & Noble)

Murder on the Rocks is the first book in MacInerney's Gray Whale Inn Mystery series. It stars Natalie Barnes, a Texas native who moves to rugged Cranberry Island, Maine to open a B & B. Accessible only by boat, the island is as much a refuge for humans as for the black-chinned terns (a fictional species) that nest in its rocky landscape. Although the natives still regard her with the suspicion they accord all "outsiders," Natalie feels at home on the beautiful island.

When Bertrand Katz, a wealthy developer, waltzes into the inn with blueprints for a mega resort he plans to build next door to the Gray Whale, Natalie is naturally upset. It's bad enough that he wants to destroy the terns' nesting grounds, but he also wants to raze Natalie's B&B to make way for a parking lot. He even has the gall to stay at her inn, despite the fact that his son lives within walking distance. She needs the money badly enough to wait on the oily developer, but she refuses to give into his schmoozing. Despite protests from her and other islanders, however, Bertrand's project receives a green light. Sunk, Natalie prepares to lose her inn, her nature paradise, and her financial stability.

Things began to look up - in a morbid sort of way - when Natalie finds Bertrand's dead body broken on the cliffs near her inn. She knows the resort project will lose some of its oomph without its ardent champion. Maybe, just maybe, she can save her inn and her beloved terns, too.

Although no one will miss the pompous developer, the police look into his death all the same. Soon, it's labeled a homicide and our heroine becomes a prime suspect. She's not alone in the line up, however, as nearly everyone seems to have a reason to want Bertrand dead. There's Barbara Eggleby, for instance, who tried desperately to outbid the developer and save the terns' nesting ground. Or long-time resident Claudette White, who vehemently opposes any kind of development on her island. Of course, there's also Estelle, Bertrand's beautiful daughter-in-law and her husband, Bertrand's bumbling son. Unfortunately for Natalie, the greasy, chain-smoking police Sargeant in charge of the investigation has it out for her.

Apparently, he's not the only one. People are creeping into the inn at night, throwing rocks through windows and sabotaging her bike. That doesn't stop her from following her own leads, exploring any angle that might clear her name. But, digging into islanders' secrets only stirs up trouble, and soon enough Natalie finds herself hunted by the police and Bertrand's ruthless killer.

Murder on the Rocks is not a perfect cozy, but it's the best example I've ever seen, uh, read. The old developer vs. conservationist conundrum is not a new idea, but the plot has enough surprises to make it original. The writing needs some polish, but it was good enough to pull me into the story and keep me there (I read the book in one day). I also liked MacInerney's characterization - her cast was colorful, but realistic. The one thing I really wanted was more background on the main character, Natalie. Although we're told she moved from Texas to heal her broken heart, we never get the rest of the story or any other info on her old life - I wondered about her old flame, her reasons for moving to Maine, what she did for work/school before buying the inn, etc. Because of this void, I didn't feel like I knew her as well as I wanted to. As for the killer's identity, it was pretty obvious, but not so much that it ruined the story.

My biggest beef with the book is an issue that plagues most cozies - a narrator who for no apparent reason decides to ignore the police and investigate on her own. I realize this is one of the main components of a cozy, but I think an author really has to work hard to make the situation believable. In the case of Natalie Barnes, proprieter of The Gray Whale Inn, it makes no sense that she would run all over the island gathering clues and solving the case. I get that the police investigator is not her biggest fan (although a plausible reason was never given for his dislike - did they have a previous run-in? Does he despise women? Why is he so bent on convicting her?), but her sexy neighbor is the island's deputy. Although he is not technically on the case, wouldn't it make more sense if she brought her information to him? So, that bugged me through the entire book; it would have been much more realistic for me if she and her neighbor worked together to solve the mystery.

When all is said and done, I really enjoyed this quick, comfy mystery. I liked the setting, enjoyed the characters and salivated over the recipes - did I mention them? In a word: Yum. In my humble little opinion, this book is the best of its kind. It's not perfect by any means, but in a genre full of clumsily-written fluff, this one stands out. Let's say it's as warm and satisfying as one of Natalie's famous Cranberry Island Blackout Brownies.

Note: Another thing I like about Karen MacInerney is that she seems very accessible. She maintains a website and two blogs, Poisoned Pen Letters and Cozy Chicks Blog. The former is her personal blog, while the latter is a joint project with six other writers. Of the six, the only one I have heard of is J.B. Stanley, whose writing I wasn't very impressed with - you can read my review of her Carbs & Cadavers to see what I mean. Still, if you like authors' blogs, be sure to check 'em out.

Grade: B


  1. I know what you mean about many of the cozy mystery series out there. The only ones that I've been able to read and enjoy are the Death on Demand by Carolyn Hart and Maggie Sefton's Knitting Mysteries. I think both of these are pretty well-written, but they do share some of the beefs that you had with this book. I think the main reason I like Maggie Sefton's books is because I'm an avid knitter, and there's quite a bit of discussion regarding knitting projects, yarns, etc.

  2. Mystery is a genre that I have never really gotten into, and I don't exactly know what a cozy mystery is, but I have read a couple of books by Dorothy Cannell that might fit that category--The Thin Woman and Withering Heights. I found them pretty entertaining and somewhat plausible, but mostly I loved her writing style--it was fun and witty.

  3. Susan, I'm glad you enjoyed MURDER ON THE ROCKS. Karen MacInerney has a second effort entitled DEAD AND BERRIED that came out last year. You know, the amateur sleuth mystery books may just not be for you. I guess I just travel along with the sleuth and look on it as "normal" that they stumble over bodies in their yards, knitting, closets, schools or whatnot. LOL

    For a funny cozy, you might try Donna Andrews' Meg Lanslow books. The first one is MURDER WITH PEACOCKS and it is a hoot I think.

  4. Gosh, Susan (and Kay)... thanks so much for the vote of confidence! I'll need it as I dip back in to write the third Gray Whale Inn mystery (which I'm at work on now), MURDER MOST MAINE.

    Really appreciate the kind words -- and yes, I do believe in putting the cozy in cozies. :)

    All best,

  5. See, I told you Karen MacInerney was accessible!

    Thanks so much for stopping by, Karen. Right now, I'm trying to find Dead and Berried, which I can't wait to read. I'll look forward to reading the third book in the series, too. Thanks for responding!


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