The House of Seven Mabels is the latest Jane Jeffry mystery by Jill Churchill. If you’ve never read one, think Lucy and Ethel meet Agatha Christie and you'll have an idea of what’s in store. Jane Jeffry and her best friend Shelley Nowack manage to stumble over a body soon after they try their hand at something new; this time out it’s interior decorating.
An acquaintance, recently divorced Bitsy Burnside, is renovating a sprawling Victorian mansion with a crew of women tradespersons run by Sandy, an inept contractor who insists on calling all the women by the masculine version of their names. Churchill tackles the issue of feminism by throwing in every stereotype imaginable, and Jane muddles through each one as she tries to understand why in the world women would ever want to be carpenters and electricians. The theme of Jane’s bewilderment grows a bit tiring, considering that she’s a widow raising three children and solves murders in her spare time. That’s feminism with a capital “F.” But that’s not the only stereotype Churchill pulls into this story. There’s also a surly contractor named Joe Budley and Bitsy’s sleazy ex-husband Neville.
Luckily, the plot moves quickly enough in the beginning and a body is soon discovered in the basement. As always, trusty Detective Mel VanDyne is on the case, and it is soon revealed that the work site has been plagued by pranks. Initially the pranks are designed to sabotage the work, but are they tied to the murder? Who stands to gain from Sandy’s murder? Who would benefit from sabotaging the renovations? All will be revealed. Unfortunately, it takes too long.
Interest wanes in a chapter devoted solely to Jane’s computer purchases and her son Todd’s mathematical search for patterns in prime numbers. I kid you not. At the end I had the feeling Churchill had a publisher’s deadline to meet and I was disappointed with the way the murderer was revealed.
I had never read a Jill Churchill mystery, and to prepare for The House of Seven Mabels I read Mulch Ado About Nothing. To my dismay, I found that a patent figures prominently in each plot. I don’t know if Churchill always relies on a patent as a reason for murder, but the fact that she used it in two consecutive mysteries left me with a feeling of déjà vu all over again. Is there anything I liked about this book? Yes, two things: the title and Jane’s recipe for deviled ham – it’s quite good. Alright, I lied, I liked the Agatha Christie references, too. I also found myself more curious about the book Jane was writing than who killed Sandy. If you’ve never read a Jane Jeffry mystery, read Mulch Ado About Nothing or The House of Seven Mabels, but not both. If you’re already a fan, reread Mulch Ado About Nothing -- it has a better storyline, and the characters are deliciously over the top. This one is for diehard Churchill fans only.