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American/Cozy Mysteries

A Hard Day's Fright, Casey Daniels, Berkley Prime Crime, $7.99.

The Actress by Elizabeth Sims

Daniels has been a very busy lady since I first met her, when her first Pepper Martin book, Don of the Dead, was published.  Since then she’s written six more “Pepper” books, and started a cooking related series under the name of Miranda Bliss.  This latest “Pepper” book is not only fun, it’s a terrific story, and Pepper has developed as a character since I first encountered her.  If you are unfamiliar with the series, Pepper works as a tour guide in an historic Cleveland cemetery.  When she starts her job in the first book, she’s distressed to discover that the pesky ghost of a dead mob boss is following her around, asking her to find out what’s happened to him.  Since Pepper is the only one who can hear him, he doesn’t let up, and another career is born: investigating what’s happened to the already dead.

During the in-between books Pepper’s gotten a bit of a reputation on the “other side” and there’s a long line of different ghosts looking for help.  Pepper also acquired - and lost - a policeman boyfriend, Quinn, and she’s become invaluable to her boss at the cemetery, Ella, despite a somewhat dubious work ethic and slight preoccupation with clothes. 

In this outing, Pepper is riding the Cleveland mass transit to work, called in Cleveland the “Rapid”, when a chilly presence from beyond reaches out and asks her to find not only who killed her, but where her body was buried.  The dead girl turns out to be a teenager, Lucy, who died (happy) in 1966, the night she saw The Beatles in concert and made it onstage to kiss Paul McCartney.  As it happens Ella, Pepper’s boss, was the admiring younger girl who went with Lucy and her gang of cool friends to the Beatles concert.  As far as Ella knows, Lucy has only “disappeared.”  The fact that she’s actually dead is one Pepper has a very hard time keeping to herself.

When Pepper first encounters Ella, though, she’s hysterical as her 15 year old daughter, Ariel, had vanished for an entire weekend.  While the girl has come home, things are not so cool at home.  Pepper dislikes Ariel heartily and is very unhappy when she discovers that Ella has decided that Ariel will come to the cemetery after school, where she will be supervised at all times.  Sometimes, of course, that supervisor turns out to be Pepper.  Ariel decides that Pepper’s “hobby” of investigating is an interesting one and she starts to follow Pepper around, forsaking her angsty girl goth look for Pepper’s slightly more mainstream one.  Whether you believe a teenager can turn around that fast is up to you; I find it less believable than a talking ghost, but Daniels makes you believe it for the purposes of the story.

As Pepper and her assistant Ariel begin to unravel the strands of Lucy’s last night by looking into the lives of all the friends that were at the concert with her, they uncover all kinds of unpleasant stuff like alcoholism and suicide.  Daniels has a light hand but the stories of the teenagers, now adults, will probably stick with you, as she’s a gifted storyteller who doesn’t pull any punches.  I read the book almost straight through and looked forward to picking it up again when I wasn’t reading it.

While I may have figured out “whodunnit” I didn’t mind as there were enough twists and revelations along the way to hold my interest.  I enjoyed the changing relationship between Ariel and her mother, and Daniel’s portrait of a pretentious academic poet is so delicious you really should read the book to get the full flavor.  It’s well worth it.  I’m now looking forward to the next book, and as Daniels, like any good storyteller, throws Pepper a curveball in her last sentence, I’m already curious to see what happens.

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