Parnell Hall’s fourth novel, A Puzzle in a Pear Tree, is a delight. I must confess that I’m not a crossword puzzle fanatic. I’ve never finished a crossword puzzle, not the ones in TV Guide nor the ones in People Magazine, so it was with some trepidation that I plunged into a mystery novel that centers on the mother of all crosswords: the acrostic. I never knew such a complicated word game existed; I guess you could say I was an agnostic when it came to acrostics. Crossword fanciers will enjoy filling in the puzzle clues that the murderer leaves for Cora Felton, otherwise known to Bakerhaven residents as The Puzzle Lady. Luckily, for people like myself, the solutions to the puzzles are on the following page. This is the first Puzzle Lady mystery I’ve read and I envisioned Cora as Jessica Fletcher with a past – a past full of ex-husbands.
This time around Cora has been roped into a Christmas pageant based on the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” and she’s the prime target of director Rupert Winston’s vitriolic barbs. There’s also a high school production of a live recreation of the nativity, staged outdoors in the dead of winter. The various plays and pageants at the heart of the story are under the direction of the hysterical Rupert Winston who takes sadistic pleasure in demeaning the actors. Not even the murder of the Virgin Mary nor the attempts on the life of the pageant’s leading lady put a crimp in Rupert’s rehearsal schedule.
Rupert’s constant cries of “the show must go on” seem to be the only way Hall could think of to show character depth. I found it tiresome and it made the character of Rupert seem one-dimensional and cliched. Rupert isn’t the only cliched character in this novel. Jonathon Doddsworth, a visiting British police officer from Scotland Yard no less, peppers the storyline with popular “Briticisms” so much that one of the characters in the novel says “Sounds right out of a PBS episode.” And then I realized something – yes we’re assualted with cliches, yes, the police chief has a bumbling deputy – and Hall acknowledges the parody of the genre and kicks it up a notch (to paraphrase a famous chef). Once I’d become convinced that Hall was taking me on a whimsical journey through familiar mystery territory I settled in for a good read. The chapters are short and breezy, perfect for readers who don’t have a lot of time.
Hall’s plot has more twists than a Ricky Martin music video. The pacing is comfortably steady throughout until the end, when it turns into a high speed chase. The clues, revelations, and Cora’s “all will be revealed” monologue come tumbling across the final pages. I felt as though I was falling off a cliff. The ending is satisfactory but unlike falling off a cliff, I came away from this novel unscathed and willing to try another of Hall’s cliffs.