The Cruel Ever After – Ellen Hart (Bywater Books)

cache_280_427_3__80_Cruel Ever After front CoverBuy from Bywater Books

One of the most wonderful parts of doing a blog like this is finding out about books you never knew existed. I’ve known of Ellen Hart for a long time now and met her more than a few times, but until Bywater Books recently re-released two of her Jane Lawless mysteries, I’d never read her. After diving into The Cruel Ever After, however, I’ve become a fan who can’t wait for the next one.

Jane’s life as restauranteur and occasional detective is disrupted by her long-gone ex-husband Chester (Chess) who shows up in town “between fortunes.” But Chess and his somewhat unhinged girlfriend Irina have a get-rich-quick scheme involving antiquities looted from the Baghdad Museum. When antiquities dealers and buyers start showing up dead, Chess becomes the prime suspect.

Even though it’s part of a series, it’s definitely a standalone book. Some initial confusion regarding the ancillary characters is quickly resolved with a bit of explanation, then it’s on to the action. And action abounds here. The body count isn’t obscenely high, but the revelations and twists come thick and fast. However, nothing will prepare you for the rather shocking scene featuring Irina near the end. The blurb on the back of the book indicates it’s an Alfred Hitchcock moment, and that’s a very apt characterization. I can almost see Hitch’s camera dollying back as we see who (or what) is in the…ah, never mind. I couldn’t possibly spoil such a wonderful frisson of discovery.

Instead, I’ll talk about the characters. Jane and her friend Cordelia are absolutely marvelous–fully-developed and three-dimensional. However, Hart seems to be most interested in the quirky flaws of Chess and Irina, who threaten to steal the book away from Jane.  Hart is clearly having fun with Chess as she creates a delightful rogue with a twisted sense of priorities and an inexhaustible supply of falsehoods and half-truths. Obsessive Irina is also well-drawn and attracts your full attention when she’s on stage. You never know what she’ll do next.

As this is the first and, so far, only Hart book I’ve read, I don’t know whether or not this is a common occurance, but she keeps the tension ratcheted up until the very last page. Most mysteries will resolve themselves, then have a bit of a rest where people go back to a somewhat normal existence and mull over what they’ve learned or gotten from the case, but not this one. A central plot point isn’t resolved until the second to last page. And I loved that. No boring last chapter, no words of wisdom from the detective…just delicious tension and an unrelenting urge to read the next one. Right now.

But until it comes out, I have some catching up to do.

©  2013  Jerry L. Wheeler

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