The Iron Girl, Ellen Hart, St. Martin's Minotaur, $14.95.
Ellen Hart has been quietly plugging away for years - honing her craft, getting better and better at what she does, and not enough people are noticing. When customers complain to me that no one writes a book full of fair clues and a tricky solution anymore, I tell them Ellen Hart is still a member of this wonderful tradition. She's just slightly updated it by putting her stories in a contemporary setting, having a main character who is a lesbian, and providing the emotional richness mystery readers have come to expect. If there are three crucial threads to a novel - plot, character, and prose - Hart is more than able to provide all three. As a reader, I can be happy with two of those three things, but I prefer all three, and certainly prefer to seek out authors who provide them. The past three or four Jane Lawless novels have really been the work of a writer at the top of her game, and I've looked forward to each one with greater and greater anticipation. When I read An Intimate Ghost I really thought this author had nowhere to go but sideways; instead, she's upped her work another notch with The Iron Girl.
This novel, like many, many of my favorite mysteries, has a story set both in the past and in the present, with the story from the past informing the one in the present. Jane, a Minneapolis restaurant owner, had a love of her life who died; in this novel, we as readers get to hear about this woman's life and death, which - luckily for us - is tied to a gruesome and fascinating murder story, the details of which Hart teases out over many chapters. (It worked, too - I couldn't put the book down.) It's emotional full circle for Jane as she works through her feelings for her dead partner, Christine, at the same time as she anticipates a relationship with a new partner. Christine, a real estate agent, had been working on the sale of a home for a very wealthy and messed up family who are alternately scary and friendly, and the night Christine goes into the hospital for the last time, several members of the family are murdered. When Jane finds a gun in the boxes of Christine's things she's kept stored in her basement, she begins to unravel the complicated story, which also involves a new business venture for Jane - courtesy of her flamboyant foil, Cordelia - and a woman who looks so much like the dead Christine that she takes Jane's breath away. With a writer a careful as Hart, no details are unnecessary. Simply wait, and all the plot elements converge beautifully.
This is a strange comparison but much like the old Andy Griffith Show - where Andy was a sane voice surrounded by lunatics - Jane Lawless is the calm center of these novels. The crisis can swirl around her, but Jane never loses her head or her clear sighted view of any situation. It's refreshing - and enviable. It also keeps the reader's path through the puzzle a straightforward one. Like another writer I admire very much, Margaret Maron, Hart is very good at fleshing out all her sidebar characters. When you get to the end of the novel and find out who did it, you aren't flipping back to figure out who that person was - you're simply horrified (and frequently surprised). So to anyone who is a fan of the locked room mystery, but who also enjoys the emotional depth of well drawn characters, I can't recommend Ellen Hart more highly. You're in for a real treat.
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