A cozy mystery with a harder edge and very engaging characters and location.

Death in a Mudflat. - N. Granger

I received a free ARC copy of this novel that I freely chose to review.

I enjoy reading mysteries, thrillers, crime novels, police procedurals… and I love watching crime movies and TV series, but my experience of cozy mysteries is a bit mixed. As a horror lover, I am not too squeamish and the fact that there is little violence (or at least not very graphically depicted) in the genre is not a big appeal for me. On the other hand, I don’t like erotica, so the lack of graphic sex is a plus. Above all, I love a good and solid story, and although I enjoy quirky and weird characters, I like the mystery to be well-plotted and detailed enough not to feel annoyed at major gaps or inconsistencies. (Yes, I know we’re talking about fiction, reading it requires a degree of suspension of disbelief and if a novel was truly factual, it would probably be terribly boring, but I can’t abide glaringly obvious mistakes or sleight of hand as a plot device to sort a complex storyline gone awry). I have read some cozy mysteries that I’ve enjoyed, but others place so much emphasis on other elements of the story and try so hard to be light and amusing, to the point where the mystery becomes an afterthought, that almost managed to convince me that the genre is not for me.

Having read N. A. Granger’s blog, knowing that she used to teach biology and anatomy and that her main character is an ER nurse, I was intrigued by her series and had put her books on my list. Her blog post about the creation of the cover for this book piqued my curiosity, and I was happy to try the book when I got the ARC copy.

This is the fourth book in the series, but the author has included a list of characters at the beginning and summarised the relationships between them, offering also a brief indication of the story so far, and that suffices to help new readers get their bearing and follow the story without difficulty, although at some points there were nuances that I was convinced would have delighted readers of the previous volumes that were lost on me. Rhe Brewster, the protagonist, is still an ER nurse, but only part-time now, and she has become an official investigator with the sheriff department (no more amateur sleuth now, although her friend Paulette takes up the role). Her brother-in-law, Sam, is the sheriff and also her beau (yes, there is a story there, for sure); she has a boy with ADHD, Jack, and she is that mix of the intuitive and clever investigator (still fresh from the amateur ranks, but getting increasingly professional, it seems) with the impulsive and rushed person who can get herself into trouble by following her intuition, always with the best intentions at heart.

We also have a wonderful setting, the imaginary small coastal-town of Pequod, in Maine, (and being a fan of Moby Dick, I love the name) where everybody knows everybody else (or almost), but large enough to have a college, a fairly big hospital, and plenty of restaurants and takeaways (if we are to judge by the number of meals and eateries mentioned in the book). Sailing, one of Rhe’s passions, is also featured, and it plays a fairly important part in this story.

The book manages to maintain the balance between the quirky atmosphere and characters, and the police-procedural-type of investigation and mystery. There are two cases, one involving three women who have been killed years apart, and a second one to do with drug overdoses at the college campus, which may, or may not, be connected. The story is narrated in the first-person from Rhe’s point of view (if you don’t always appreciate first-person narratives, I’d recommend that you check a sample of the writing first) and her personality shines through in the way the story is told. Some aspects of the story are described in plenty of detail —those that she knows well and is more interested in— like the post-mortem examinations, the steps necessary to maintain the chain of evidence, and the sailing scenes (I have read reviews praising their accuracy, but as I have no knowledge of sailing and little of its terminology, I cannot comment, and I must admit some of the finer details went over my head) and would seemingly push it towards a more straight-type of mystery. But, Rhe is not all procedure and protocol, and there are also plenty of details that emphasize the domestic and amateurish side of the plot (Rhe has two jobs and has to juggle those with her personal life as well, resulting in information not being relayed straight away, details and facts about the cases being confirmed only when there is a gap in her schedule and many discussions with her superior taking place in the comfort of their own home). There is a mix of very high-tech procedures (courtesy of the FBI intervention) with a somewhat old-fashioned feel to the book (people carry mobile phones but don’t often use them, and Rhe and Sam seem to prefer good old-style policing, knocking on doors and talking to people, and even confess to lack of technical proficiency), that is also in evidence when it comes to the personal relationships and lifestyle of the characters. Although Rhe is a woman of action and proves, more than once, that she can look after herself, Sam questions her decisions often and pulls rank on more than one occasion, and Paulette and Rhe are also concerned about the reaction of her friend’s husband to her adventures, although this seems to be played mostly for laughs.

The mix of high and low intensity also carries through when it comes to action. I have already talked about the importance of food, and how often it is the subject of conversations, but there is also plenty of action, involving Rhe getting herself into trouble and, either managing to rescue others at the last minute (with some assistance), or having to get rescued. I don’t want to reveal any spoilers, but let’s say that at some points the pace quickens, the stakes are high, and there is plenty more action than I have come to expect from cozies.

The writing is easy to follow and flows well, and the characters’ speech is distinctive, their quirks and personalities making the dialogue compelling. I particularly enjoyed the local words and occasional expressions that peppered the novel without overwhelming it or making it difficult to understand.

What about the mystery? Is it easy to crack? Because the story is told from Rhe’s point of view, it is difficult to get ahead of her, although the author is skilled at giving us some clues that Rhe seems not to fully register or process at the time, and those clues might help readers solve the case somewhat before the protagonist. There are red herrings and we are often lead down the wrong path, but as Rhe is now firmly on the side of the law (well, almost all of the time), the emphasis is on getting the required evidence and not only on coming up with a theory or a hunch. I felt that both cases were intriguing enough to keep readers turning the pages at a fast pace, and the place and the characters added atmosphere to the novel.

I am sure that readers who have followed the series will enjoy this novel more fully, as it is clear that the characters, and Rhe in particular, have developed and grown through the books, but I must confess that this first incursion into Rhe Brewster’s world got me attached to the characters to the point where I felt quite emotional and sorry to see them go. Ah, and the prologue of the next book promises a gripping read as well.

I recommend this story to readers of cozy novels who prefer their mysteries with a more realistic and harder edge, crossing into police-procedural terrain, and to all those who love series like Midsummer Murders and want to immerse themselves in a charming small town with a dark (or darkish) underside. (Beware if you’re on a diet, though. There’s plenty of food!)