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by Parnell Hall
Minotaur Books, January 2013
320 pages
ISBN: 0312602480

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

The latest in a long line of Puzzle Lady mysteries, Parnell Hall's ARSENIC AND OLD PUZZLES brings readers up to date on the goings-on of Cora Felton, his contradictory aging sleuth who lives in the small community of Bakerhaven which she both helps frequently and just as frequently annoys. The local newspaper regularly publishes puzzles (crossword and sudoku) under her name and picture. However, Cora is incapable of devising them and mostly cannot solve them so she has somehow cajoled her great-niece Sherry into doing that little thing for her.

The fun in this Puzzle Lady Mystery is partly provided by the new puzzles Will Shortz has provided for the reader to solve, some of which shed light on who, what, where, when, why, and how the sudden explosion of murders have occurred. The greater fun, though, comes through the author's deep love of Frank Capra's fabulous film ARSENIC AND OLD LACE. The novel is basically a tribute to the genius of that movie and readers will be drawn to watch it or watch it again.

Yes, there is elderberry wine in the bed and breakfast run by two elderly sisters. There are bodies in the window seat, nephews, and a beautiful young woman who lives next door. The mystery makes as little sense as that in the film, but Cora's sharp eye and shrewd guesses keep things moving forward, much to Police Chief Harper's relief. Along the way, Cora manages to offend a rather large number of people including the man she seduces as she moves toward the cliché of gathering everyone together so that she can name the killer -- but she has no idea who the killer might be.

Cora riddles the story with wisecracks and odd behavior. Her edginess occasionally makes her seem more mean than funny, but in a way even that works, sort of anchoring her in a rough patch that we can hope she will work through and leave behind her in her further adventures.

There is nothing here to take seriously except the admiration of a grand classic film, but the ride is fun and the resolution one that is so unexpected that almost no reader will be able to tip in that direction and that in itself suits this off-the-wall mystery just fine.

§ Diana Borse is retired from teaching English at Texas A&M University-Kingsville and savoring the chance to read as much as she always wanted to.

Reviewed by Diana Borse, April 2013

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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