Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. It’s July. And that means, depending on where you live, it’s time for sipping a cold drink and cooling off with a good book, or sipping a hot drink and sitting by a warm, crackling fire with a good book. Either way, sometimes a lighter mystery is the right fit for those days. Let’s take a look at a light mystery today, and turn the spotlight on Carolyn Hart’s Death on Demand, the first of her Death on Demand series.
Death on Demand is the name of a mystery bookshop on South Carolina’s Broward’s Rock Island. Annie Laurance has been its owner since she inherited the business from her Uncle Ambrose a little less than a year ago. She’s happy running the bookshop, and she has fond memories of the summers she spent on the island as a child.
One of Annie’s regular rituals is the weekly meeting of the Sunday Night Regulars, a group of writers who live on the island. They take turns giving talks about their work, and, in general, it’s an enjoyable time. Everything changes one evening when Elliot Morgan is scheduled to talk. His newest book is a tell-all, and he’s going to share what he’s found out about the other writers. Needless to say, Annie knows that’s a disaster waiting to happen, and she tries to talk Morgan out of it. He’s determined to see it through, though; and, in the end, Annie has no choice but to go on with the meeting.
The other writers arrive, and things get underway. Just as Elliot’s beginning his talk, the lights go out. Annie’s able to get t the fuse box and get the lights on again, but not before someone has killed Elliot. The police, in the form of Police Chief Frank Saulter, start to investigate. Right from the beginning, Saulter has his eye on Annie as a suspect. For one thing, a witness heard her having a quarrel with Elliot shortly before the meeting. For another, it’s her shop, and she would have been able to set everything up for the murder. And there’s more. Annie’s one of the people Elliot was planning to embarrass, as he knows a secret from her past. What’s more, Saulter thinks that Annie’s uncle was murdered, and that she is responsible.
Annie knows that she’s going to have to work quickly to clear her name if she’s going to avoid arrest. So, she starts to ask questions. And she finds that everyone who was at the gathering had a very good reason to commit murder. Then, there’s another murder. And Annie soon finds herself in plenty of danger of her own, both from the police and from the real killer.
In the meantime, Annie’s old flame Max Darling has tracked her down, and pays her a visit. He wants to convince her to come back to him, and it’s going to be a hard sell. So, in part to win her over, Max works with Annie to keep her out of prison, and to find out who really committed the murders. It turns out that the Elliott’s murder is related to the other murders, including Uncle Ambrose’s.
One of the important elements in the novel is the mystery-store theme. Annie is a fan of crime fiction, and well-read in just about all of the major classic and contemporary authors. There are lots of mentions of different authors; they serve as a nod to crime fiction fans (Annie’s cat’s named Agatha, for instance).. For instance, here’s what Annie thinks as it occurs to her that people she thought of as friends might be gossiping about her, and thinking she killed her uncle:
‘Annie felt as if something slimy had touched her. She had been so happy on Broward’s Rock, confident of her place in her own version of St. Mary Mead. Instead, smiling faces hid ugly suspicions. The reality was a Ruth Rendell world.’
And it’s certainly true that some ugliness lies beneath the surface of some of those familiar faces. Crime fiction fans who enjoy references to real-life authors will appreciate this.
Another important element in the novel is the setting. Broward’s Rock Island is a tourist mecca during the season. It’s also the permanent home for some very wealthy people (If you’re familiar with it, think Hilton Head). People on the island know each other, and many have been there for quite some time. Annie is accepted (although still considered ‘new’) because of her regular visits, and because her uncle owned the bookshop. But it is a small, rather insular community. The island itself is physically beautiful, and, of course, has lovely ocean views. It’s the sort of place where one might go to fish, lie in the sand, or golf.
The story is light, with little ‘on stage’ violence and little explicit language. But it’s not ‘frothy.’ Hart doesn’t gloss over the impact that murder has on a community, nor on the danger of asking too many questions of people who don’t want to answer them.
The solution to the mystery follows from the evidence that Annie and Max find. And readers who like scenes where the guilty party is led off in handcuffs will appreciate the fact that that happens here. It’s worth noting at this point that, although the police are not really portrayed as bumbling idiots, it’s Annie and Max who solve the case. Readers vary greatly with how credible they find amateur sleuths with no police connections. Those who like to have their disbeliefs sitting close by will notice that these amateurs do quite a lot of the investigating.
Death on Demand shows how people’s past actions can haunt them for a long time. It features a unique crime fiction bookshop and plenty of mentions of real-life crime writers and their creations. It also features two sleuths who get caught up in much more than they imagined. But what’s your view? Have you read Death on Demand? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 16 July/Tuesday, 17 July – The Invisible Dead – Sam Wiebe
Monday, 23 July/Tuesday, 24 July – The Book of Memory – Petina Gappah
Monday, 30 July/Tuesday, 31 July – The Choirboys – Joseph Wambaugh