Monday, February 18, 2013

Book Review: You Have the Right to Remain Puzzled by Parnell Hall (Puzzle Lady Mysteries #8)

Stars: 4 stars out of 5
Pros: Complex puzzle that does come together in the end
Cons: Slow, angry start
The Bottom Line:
Overcomes slow start
To provide complex puzzle
With a great ending

I Exercised My Rights Until the End

You Have the Right to Remain Puzzled is the eighth book in the Puzzle Lady series by Parnell Hall.  And if you jump in here, you're likely to be confused.  There is just the minimal of background information about the characters.  While it is probably enough to get you through the book, it certainly wouldn't be enough to explain all the nuances of the characters to you.

To complicate matters, the first chapter actually takes place in the middle of the action and has multiple characters coming together to a dramatic scene.  It worked for me and made me want to know more.  But it isn't a smooth start for a newbie.

So just what might a newbie want to know?  Cora Felton is the famed Puzzle Lady, the creator of a daily cross word puzzle column carried by multiple newspapers.  Or at least that's what the world thinks.  Only a handful of people know the truth, Cora couldn't create or solve a cross word puzzle to save her life.  Instead, her niece Sherry writes the column.  It just took Cora's grandmotherly face to sell it.  The pair live in Bakershaven, Connecticut where Sherry has just become engaged to local reporter Aaron Grant.  Even though the town is small, it seems to have a large number of cross word puzzle related deaths.  Cora isn't complaining since she loves to solve a mystery and uses any excuse she can to jump into a case.

As this story starts, Cora is bored.  Nothing exciting has happened in her life for months.  She even asks Chief Harper for any cases she can help solve.  He gives her a case of stolen chairs.  They've been missing for a year now, and the police have no leads.

But things get even hairier when Cora asks her niece Sherry to create an apology puzzle for a housewife.  Next thing Cora knows, she's being accused of plagiarizing the puzzle.  Benny Southstreet, the original creator, has a solid case.  This could spell the end of the Puzzle Lady columns.  Then Benny is murdered and all the evidence points to Cora.  Can she clear herself of the frame?

The book actually starts with Cora being arrested for the murder, then backtracks a week to show us how we got there.  I'm not sure that technique was necessary, but it did work to hook me for the first half.

Which is a good thing since the book doesn't appear to be going anywhere for the first 70 pages or so.  Of all the books in the series, this plot seems to be the least unfocused and meandering.  But don't let appearances fool you.  Mr. Hall brings everything together for an ending that works.  We don't have the big clues, but there are a few small ones along the way as well.  The further along I went, the more I was hooked on the story.

I also found the characters annoying near the beginning.  I have always loved the series for the humor and the word play between them.  Yet in the first quarter, I felt like the characters weren't bantering but sniping at each other.  Whether it was just my mood or not, it was getting to me.  Not helping things was the constant fighting that Sherry and Aaron were doing over their ex's.  (Speaking of whom, can we kill of Dennis, Sherry's ex-husband?  He's moved from interesting character to scary stalker.)

As the plot picked up, I got less annoyed with the characters.  Unlike the earlier books that really spread the time around to several characters, Cora is the focus here.  Sherry has gone from being a main character to a side kick and the rest of the ensemble only show up when needed for the plot.  In fact, I'm not sure how well they really are developed here.  My impressions are colored by the history I have with them, so they still seemed like real characters to me.  There aren't very many new characters this time around, but they are rather colorful.

And there's the humor.  While not classic, there was some word play and banter that had me laughing.  And the missing chairs become the subject of a classic comedy of errors.

Because so much of the book relies on dialog, it is a fast read.  Still, there is enough narration and description to make everything work.

It took me a little while to get into You Have the Right to Remain Puzzled, but in the end I enjoyed it.  Just don't start the series here or you won't really get it.

Looking for the rest of the series?  Here's The Puzzle Lady Mysteries in order.

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