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American/Cozy Mysteries

Murder of a Royal Pain, Denise Swanson, Obsidian, $6.99.

Murder of a Royal Pain by Denise Swanson

It's no secret that I'm a fan of Denise Swanson, both as a writer and a person—she's been coming to Aunt Agatha's to sign books since her first novel, Murder of a Small Town Honey, arrived in August of 2000. Nine years on, Swanson has written eleven books including the latest, all as fresh and sharp as the first one. Her central character, Skye Denison, is a school psychologist with a blunt sense of humor and a good sense of what's right and wrong, as well as a hefty dose of both common sense and smarts. She's not that unlike Denise herself, a now retired school psychologist from a small town in Illinois. This book is one of her strongest, in my opinion—maybe retirement has gotten Denise fired up, I'm not sure, but as a reader you definitely feel like you're comfortably ensconced with a writer who knows what she's up to. You can sit back and enjoy the ride.

The fun begins when Skye finally gets the help she's been begging the school board for in the form of a new school social worker. Her relief is quickly tempered with a quashed annoyance when she realizes that her new savior, Jackie Jennings, not only has to share her tiny office, but she's a little too good to be true. Unfortunately, Skye seems to be the only one aware of her defects as Jackie steps up to every committee and enthusiastically agrees to deal with problem parents. How can Skye complain? She has good radar, that's how, and a fond reader will be firmly on Skye's side as Swanson deftly peels back the layers of Jennings' behavior.

To spice things up, there's also the prom-fest committee that Skye has been corralled into being a part of, and she has a front row seat as two competitive mothers jockey to get their own daughter elected prom queen. Skye is then pressed into playing a witch at the haunted house that's a prom fund raiser—apparently things have moved beyond crepe paper and balloons in the gym. There's no way for Skye to avoid her fate and she has a strong dislike of haunted houses. Of course when the haunted house is finally in place things don't go well, and someone is murdered.

Skye's problems are somewhat exacerbated by the fact that her boyfriend, Wally, is out of town and she's forced to deal with an underling (Wally is the police chief) who doesn't especially like her; there's a new reporter in town who keeps both pumping her for information and hitting on her; and Jackie seems to be everywhere, seemingly doing a better job than Skye ever could.

I thought this was such a strong series entry because Swanson really focuses her considerable skills on these two women, and I got really caught up both in the school side of Skye's job, which is really interesting, and in her relationship with Jackie, which is disturbing, though you're not quite sure why. Swanson is a real master at revealing just enough information and at keeping things moving swiftly along. I had a hard time putting this book down and I have a feeling you might feel the same way.

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