Arsenic and Old Puzzles by Parnell Hall

When an unidentified guest at one of the local bed-and-breakfasts is found dead one morning, it is not surprising that the police are called in to investigate…but when a crossword and a sudoku puzzle are found on the body, The Puzzle Lady is called in to assist the police. The investigation team has barely begun investigating Death #1, when subsequent bodies, also found inert under suspicious circumstances, start accumulating. A pattern begins to emerge here, that of the stage play/Cary Grant vehicle, Arsenic and Old Lace: Victim #1 has been killed by a mix of arsenic, strychnine and ‘just a pinch of cyanide’ in his glass of (yes, you guessed it) elderberry wine1, Victim #2 is in the window seat, there’s what appears to be a grave in the dirt cellar, and to cap things off, one nephew is engaged to the girl next door, and the other has a gauntly pallid cadaverous visage.

(of course it’s not really connected in any way to Arsenic and Old Lace, but I’ll stop there to as to attempt avoiding spoilers.)

In true cozy style, Hall has his protagonist collect all the suspects together in the parlor of the bed-and-breakfast, in order to Reveal Her Conclusions. Unlike Miss Marple, however, this protagonist is still in full possession of a decidedly youthful interest in men, having had five (plus) marriages, most of which were legal, and a few rewarding relationship with members of the opposite gender. Not to mention the fact that she’s a only mildly reformed smoker and drinker.

This is the most recent (so far as I can tell) in Parnell Hall’s “Puzzle Lady” series; I’ll reserve judgement on the series as a whole until I’ve read a couple more, but this first one I’ve read has already passed a couple of tests with flying colors. One, even coming into the middle of the series, I was able to follow the peripheral details of the relationships here; while I might have found all that repetitive had I followed the series from the beginning, it’s nice to find a series which one can pick up mid-way and yet not feel left out. Another plus for me is that the “hook”, here crossword puzzles, actually served as part of the mystery itself, rather than a mere publicity device; I couldn’t tell that Goldy Bear’s catering business had much to do with the crimes she encountered, for example. (Doesn’t hurt that I like crossword puzzles, nor that the person creating them is himself a reasonably well-respected puzzlemaker.)

What to read next? Well, there are a lot of “hook” cozies out there that might appeal to readers. Though I can’t offhand think of any others which involve crosswords as a central plot point, there are a few that do have as their central characters a lady of mature years with…an enthusiasm for life not usually included in the stereotype of that age group and gender, shall we say? While the protagonists of the series aren’t cookie cutters of each other, I’d suggest starting with Anne George, Rita Lakin, Jeanne Dams’ Shrewsbury series and Dorothy Gilman’s Mrs. Pollifax books.

1having made elderberry cordial myself, yes, a liqueur made from straight elderberries is powerfully flavored enough to cover up just about anything.

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