This is a very satisfying, tremendously interesting cozy mystery debut by Cleland, featuring an engaging new female sleuth in the form of an antiques dealer.
New Hampshire antiques dealer Josie Prescott is forced to turn to sleuthing when she is suspected of killing one of her wealthy customers, Nathaniel Grant. Josie’s life has already been rocked by scandal; she left a big New York auction house under a cloud as a whistleblower, and the last thing she needs is a disaster in her new hometown.
Jane K Cleland’s first novel is hopefully the start of a mystery series with plenty more books to come. From Cleland’s own website (www.janecleland.net), we know that she used to own a rare book and antiques store in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and now lives in New York City with her husband and three cats. She appears to be somewhat of an expert in the areas she writes about - being antiques and lost art stolen by the Nazis - and it certainly shows, making Consigned to Death enjoyable and educational.
Josie is shocked to discover that her potential new client has been murdered, and even more shocked when she comes under the scrutiny of the police since her fingerprints are found on the murder weapon. Starting her new life and new business has been so important to her in forgetting her difficult past, and Josie is determined to find out who the killer is so her life does not get turned upside-down again.
She is helped along by Max, her understanding lawyer, and forms an alliance with an ambitious young reporter. Using this support and her knowledge of the antiques business, she snoops around right under the nose of the attractive Chief Alvarez. When she discovers that Nathaniel Grant may have been in possession of some paintings stolen by the Nazis, she thinks she may be on to something. After all, people have been known to kill for much less then paintings by Matisse and Cézanne.
The police think they have a smoking gun (or knife, as the case may be), the police chief and Josie have an obvious attraction, red herrings crop up everywhere, along with some fabulous suspects including a rival dealer, his obnoxious wife, even members of Josie’s own staff - about whom she begins to realize she knows very little.
There is no doubt this book has all the elements of a good mystery, including twists and turns, great characters and an extremely likable amateur sleuth. Cleland delights and charms by including just enough information about antiques and art to interest the reader without making the reader feel as though she has accidentally picked up a book from the do-it-yourself section.
The language and lore of the antique world is communicated naturally and does not distract but rather adds to the enjoyment of the story. Being a lover of antiques, I found this book an absolute delight, but even those who don’t like antiques will still find the book readable and may even decide they have misjudged the antiques world; after all, Josie and company remind us that it can be full of scandal and intrigue.
The characters and the interaction between them also causes Consigned to Death to stand out. Not only does Cleland ensure there are enough credible suspects, she also makes the reader hungry for more details about even minor characters.
It would be interesting to be Josie trying to search her head for details about those she knows. We discover tidbits about each member of staff that make us wonder about them, but Cleland never presents us with enough to totally know them - a great tactic on Cleland’s part to make the reader want to delve into the next book, and to the next where it is certain more and more will be revealed about the characters we meet here.
It is clear Josie is friendly, and she puts faith instantly in Max (and takes a great risk trusting a reporter). She is frustrated with her feelings for the chief of police, and it is obvious through Cleland’s superb use of language and description of body language that Alvarez feels the same. No one player overtakes the other, and Josie’s relationships seem credible and real.
Many great writers do wonderful series that are considered “cozies”. These include Liilan Jackson Braun with her wonderul The Cat Who.. series, G.K. Chesterton and his “Father Brown” series, Joan Hess and the “Joan Claire Malloy” series, and Katherine Hall Page with the “Faith Sibley Fairchild” series.
Most cozy mysteries feature ameteur sleuths with some kind of hook to do with their careers or hobbies; they are often booksellers, teachers, priests, vicars, or journalists - anything other than policemen. Often highlighted are things like the ESP of animals (Jackson Braun is a good example) or knitting, cooking, even travelling.
So into this mix comes an antiques expert and auctioneer, and it is a delighful change; I do not think I could handle another minister’s wife or caterer or bookseller. It is time for something new, and Cleland brings it to the party. It is also not so unusual that crimes might be involved in the world of antiques versus in the spheres of knitting or coffee-making. Cleland does her research well, finding her niche in a heavily populated genre.
There is support in this book for an ongoing series. Josie is likable, and the characters surrounding her are believable with plenty of room to grow. There much more we can learn about antiques, Josie and friends, and small-town living. The great news is that the second book in the series will be released this year; it is called Deadly Appraisal and is available for pre-order at Amazon.com.I give this fabulous debut mystery 5 stars.