Lammy award-winning mystery author Michael Craft’s latest novel is a cozy, small town whodunnit with a compelling cast of characters, including a talking cat.
Fictional amateur sleuths tend to be “detective-adjacent” such as criminal defense lawyers (Michael Nava’s Henry Rios series), investigative reporters (R.D. Zimmerman’s Todd Mills series), or at least TV crime noir fanatics (Marshall Thornton’s Noah Valentine from the Boystown series). It’s a helpful convention to provide the hero with the access and the know-how to solve the crime.
Craft takes a different approach with his leading man Brody Norris. Brody is an architect of all things. But as the junior partner in his husband’s illustrious firm and a fellow of society in a tony Wisconsin hamlet, Brody’s social connections make him something of a secret weapon for the local sheriff when he’s sorting out foul play. Brody also may be getting help from his eccentric friend’s possibly telepathic Abyssinian Mister Puss, though Craft plays it coy with that bit of esoterica. It could just be Brody and his friend Mary Questman are projecting their subconscious thoughts onto the beloved feline as pet owners are known to do.
Brody’s investigative quest begins when the young, handsome and gay choirmaster of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church is found dead at the organ while the church is nearly engulfed in flames. A quick study of the circumstances reveals a host of intrigues. The deceased had a well-known allergy to nuts and had a plate of cookies on the organ console, baked for him by the middle-aged church secretary who was harboring a hopeless crush on the young man. The parish had just been given notice the ancient church will be condemned unless costly repairs are made to bring it up to code. Alternatively, some in the church leadership are campaigning to demolish the old church and construct a new one, which could involve lucrative self-dealing.
In the middle of that debate is Joyce Hibbard, the ambitious new rector of the parish who happens to be in Brody’s social orbit. Joyce is the wife of his husband Marson’s old college buddy Curtis Hibbard. Having had a successful career as a lawyer and never before been religiously-inclined, Joyce’s call to faith late in life is curious.
Furthermore, her marriage to Curtis is mainly for appearances. Curtis needed a beard to fit in with the high-powered New York City lawyer set, and similarly, Joyce needed a husband at a time when being a career-driven woman required softening one’s image. Though the fact that Curtis was trying to get into her choirmaster’s pants makes Brody wonder whether Joyce had resolved the issue of jealousy in their marriage.
Then there’s the choirmaster’s ne’er-do-well younger brother who’s been after his brother for money and stands to inherit a fortune as the sole heir to their parents’ estate. Curtis and his good friend and ex Yevgeny, a former world-renowned ballet dancer, are also possible suspects as they had been competing for the handsome choirmaster’s affections. And reports of anti-gay violence in nearby Green Bay suggest homophobia could have been a motive.
Craft knows mystery writing. As Brody gets deeper into sleuthing, the reader is breathless from possibilities and flipping pages briskly to find out what’s really going on. Craft doesn’t break any boundaries with the story. It’s cozy mystery through and through (did I mention there’s a talking cat?). But for readers who like their whodunnits Miss Marple-style, with terror afoot in quaint places and not much blood and gore, Choirmaster is vacation-reading gold.
In fact, there is something unexpectedly transgressive about the story. Gay genre fiction tends to demand the hero finds some romance along the way and favors characters in the prime of gayhood. Craft’s Brody Norris is a happily married fellow in his late thirties with a husband twenty years his senior. Their challenges of gay living concern domestic themes like choosing the right menu for a dinner party while many of their gay and lesbian friends and neighbors struggle with “to be or not to be” and navigate double lives. The story focuses on gay men of a certain age and a certain income bracket, and the portrayal rings true.
A lovely murder mystery that will charm the author’s loyal following as well as fans of Richard Stevenson, R.D. Zimmerman, and Mark Richard Zubro.
Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters