Mystery Books for Sale

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by J. B. Stanley
Berkley, January 2006
224 pages
ISBN: 0425207455

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Molly Appleby, a writer for an antiques weekly, is assigned to cover a kiln opening in Seagrove, North Carolina, the home of some of the most famous of the Southern potters. Since her mother works in the antiques trade and is a minor collector of pottery herself, the two attend together. As the eager collectors pay for their purchases, one of the most prominent among them dies suddenly of what proves to be an overdose of insulin. The police are willing to call the death an accident, but Molly is pretty sure that it's something more.

Of course Molly decides to conduct her own investigation, during which we meet many characters who knew the obnoxious dead man and had reasons to kill him. Among these are his wife, his mistress and a small-town pharmacist whose pottery collection rivaled that of the deceased. As Molly digs deep into the victim's life, she unravels a complex web of relationships that lead her to unearth the secrets behind the murder.

Amateur sleuths who work in the antiques trade star in some pretty good mystery series. The best of the lot, in my opinion, is Elaine Flinn's series about Molly Doyle, but Lea Wait and Deborah Morgan both write long-running, well-respected series as well. Don't look to JB Stanley to add depth to this sub-genre, however. She's just not in their league, at least not yet.

This book does have a few strengths, though. For one thing, the author's own love for pottery and its creation shines through. The quotations that preface each chapter bear testament to the research that went into the writing of this book, and along the way the reader learns a little about the history and traditions of Southern pottery. There are even some interesting illustrations of face jugs. Collectors and those drawn to folk art may find much of interest in these details.

The mystery itself, however, is a paint-by-numbers effort. The characters have the feel of tired old souls called up from central casting for yet another performance, and what's worse, I found Molly downright strange. She's called Madam by her mother, with whom she spends way too much time for a healthy 30-something career woman. She's called Chicken by her best friend, Emma, who is married to Molly's mother's boss and, for a best friend, is all but absent from the plot.

Molly's interactions with her love interest are just plain embarrassing. One of the great pleasures of the cozy, for me at least, is the chance to hang out with a protagonist I'd love to have as a friend. Molly is not such a person. She's more like an annoying office intern than a spirited partner in crime. And this may be just me, but when Elaine Flinn writes such a wonderful antique mystery series with a protagonist named Molly, was it really necessary to use the same name here?

The prose leaves something to be desired. There are two sections of writing in particular that should have been caught before they ever appeared in print. These italicized pages are told from the point of view of the clay. Yes, the clay. And the clay is not the only inanimate object to have a rich inner life in this book. The text is rife with images from "the sun rested its weary head on the pine trees" school of writing. There may be readers out there who would appreciate this kind of writing, or at least not mind it, but it pulled me right out of the story. As did the ending, which was a major head-banger of a coincidence.

Stanley gets points for passion for her subject, but the rest of the mystery remains a beginner's pot listing on the wheel. Still, fiction writing, like pottery making, is a craft that can be learned. Let's hope that as the series continues Stanley develops as much passion for the crafting of good fiction as she shows for pottery.

Reviewed by Carroll Johnson, January 2006

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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