"Grace Under Pressure" by Julie Hyzy
Berkley Prime Crime, 310 pp., $7.99
Reviewed by David Marshall James
With a setting in a Biltmore-esque mansion, complete with rolling grounds and a guest hotel, author Julie Hyzy has developed a most manageable premise for a mystery, especially when the enormous old museum house comes complete with secret rooms and passageways.
The titular heroine-- Grace Wheaton-- is serving as assistant curator of Marshfield Manor, and is living in none-too-shabby digs herself.
Well, the roof on her Victorian homestead-- which came to her via her recently deceased mother, and her mother before her-- needs replacing. And the garden's in a tangle.
Nevertheless, Grace is a fairly happy camper. Having "done the NYC thing," she's thoroughly contented to be back in her hometown of Emberstowne (no state locale given, although it sounds suspiciously like Asheville, N.C.; nevertheless, it's a good bit smaller, given the size of the constabulary force).
She also has two gentlemen roommates; however, don't question Grace's predilections. They're the couple, and her best friends at that, the owners of a local wine/specialty foods shop.
Speaking of Grace's love life: She's been dumped by her latest amour, and she figures he has made tracks with her ne'er-do-well sister.
Now, what else is going on ... the curator of Marshfield Manor has been shot.
Grace moves into his slot, immediately disenchanted with the progress of the murder investigation. She believes it's proceeding at a snail's pace, with detectives ignoring the most promising leads, including the heir to Marshfield Manor's testimony against the instigator of a Ponzi scheme.
"Cherchez the money trail!" exclaims Grace, as she attempts to adjust to her array of new responsibilities as well. On a happier note, those lead her to an introduction to the manor's landscape consultant.
He's also sweaty and dirty and, well, Heathcliffian when she first encounters him. Talk about your antidote to runaway lovers emeriti.
Looks as if someone's going to have a go at Grace's tangled garden, if not her roof.
This inaugural entry in author Hyzy's "Manor of Murder" series is, as aforementioned, nicely set. Hyzy is especially adept at character development, and Grace serves well as a central character, nicely supported by her roomies and landscaper Jack Embers.
The conflict crackles between Grace and her secretary-from-hell, Frances. Not that Frances's competency is in question-- just the opposite. However, she has been employed at Marshfield Manor since "ism," raising nosiness and busy-bodyness to an art form.
Hyzy takes a while to set the table before serving the feast, but the second half of the novel is well worth the wait, piquing the reader's interest in where the author plans to direct her characters in further stories.
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