"Dare to Die" by Carolyn Hart
William Morrow, 292 pp., $24.95
Reviewed by David Marshall James
By the off chance you have strayed from Broward's Rock, S.C., or never visited in the first place, then it's high time for a return visit or a maiden encounter.
In either event, you've been missing the natural wonders of wildlife-laden marshes and beaches lined with dunes covered in sea oats, lapped by the jade-green waters of the Atlantic. Vessels great and small dock in the marina, near a boardwalk featuring specialty shops to delight both locals and visitors, all of whom must cross by ferry from the mainland.
After a fried oyster sandwich at Ben Parotti's Grill-- and what's an oyster sandwich without cole slaw, curly fries, hush puppies, and a sampling of Jolene Parotti's dessert du jour-- you'll want to check out those shops, particularly Annie Darling's Death on Demand mystery book store, an oasis within an oasis for afficionadoes of the whodunit.
Annie, who inherited Death on Demand from her Uncle Ambrose, cannot seem to keep her hands off a good mystery, whether it's stacked on her shelves or whether she's embroiled in the midst of it.
Sometimes, that's the fault of her husband Max, who operates a business called Confidential Commissions, also on the boardwalk. Occasionally, a case will literally drop on his desk. True to his to-the-manor-born roots, Max-- and Annie, of course-- are planning to move into Franklin house, an island manse complete with columns and double verandahs.
However, as this novel opens, Franklin house is more than a mess, owing to a plumbing crisis, so Annie and Max are ensconced in a cabin at the Nightingale court, a throwback to the days of beachside motor courts set in glades of live oaks draped with Spanish moss.
Trouble descends in the form of a woman in her late twenties, arriving in the rain on a bicycle. The economy may be going green, but not as fast as Annie's Volvo when she's tailing a wailing police cruiser. Therefore, the woman on the bicycle draws plenty of attention.
A native of Broward's Rock, she fled a decade ago after two tragic deaths involving her high-school classmates. She cannot help but wonder, however, if those two deaths were purely accidental. Therefore, she's returned, determined to dredge up the past.
Good-hearted Annie invites her at the last minute to a party that she and Max are throwing at the Harbor Pavilion. More than six people from the bicyclist's past are in attendance, and another death occurs.
Author Carolyn Hart maintains a steady flow of action in her nineteenth Death on Demand mystery. Moreover, she has developed a larger-than-usual (for a mystery series) cast of returning characters. Such characters are indispensable if an author expects readers to make repeat engagements with her/his works.
In addition to the Darlings and the Parottis, the ensemble includes Max's eccentrically ethereal mother, Laurel, and mystery-novel connoisseur Henny Brawley. In this volume, Laurel has moved her tai chi class to Death on Demand, and Henny begins implementing her ideas in the store while she and Laurel sub for Annie, who is in turn subbing for the proprietors of Nightingale Court.
Local law enforcement supplies a half-dozen returning characters, all of whom are largely supportive of Annie and Max. The crowning glory of the cast, however, is Hart's delightful dabble in metafiction: famed mystery writer Emma Clyde, proud owner of a Rolls-Royce, a sumptuous mansion, and a seemingly endless array of stylish caftans.
Although Emma's "Marigold Rembrandt" mystery novels sell like Parotti's jalapeno cornbread at Death on Demand, Annie is reserved in her opinion of the series, which she believes relies too heavily on far-fetched plot contrivances.
Not so Hart's work! The central clue is planted carefully, and, if you pick up on it, you'll have the mystery solved about halfway through. Nevertheless, the author pitches in one surprise after another until the end, and the reader leaves this latest excursion to Broward's Rock feeling neither cheated nor deprived.
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