Murder Unleashed, Elaine Viets, New American Library, $19.95.
The fifth book in Viets' lively Helen Hawthorne series doesn't disappoint, despite Viets' taking on another potentially boring job (pet store clerk) and somehow milking it for satire and interest despite the odds. This time around, Helen isn't working in a boring chain pet store but in one of those fancy pet boutiques that sell cute little coats, booties and fancy treats for super spoiled dogs. Catering to the ultra rich of Ft. Lauderdale, Helen finds herself schlepping bags of dog food out to waiting BMWs and driving to client's homes to pick up their pooches for a session with the fabulous groomer at the Pampered Pet Boutique, Jonathan. Helen, for the uninitiated, works off the books for cash so her ex-husband, whom she caught with her best friend, can't track her down and take half her assets away (he wants alimony from her). So Helen lives in a picturesque apartment building populated with all kinds of interesting eccentrics, including her boyfriend, undercover agent Phil, who handily lives next door but who is frequently out of town on assignment. This is a rich background for all the stories, as the characters at the apartment building stay the same (except for the rotating bunch of criminals in a certain apartment), while Helen's different jobs provide a whole new slew of characters in every novel. It's a neat and useful premise.
In this novel, Helen goes to pick up a dog for a grooming session (his owner wants him to look just right for his birthday party) and discovers the owner dead. She panics and while she does call it in, she hides the fact that she found the body from the police, leading to all kinds of complications. One of them is her failure to come clean with Phil - about finding the body and her true backstory - leading to problems in their fledgling relationship.
Helen may not make much money, but these stories are truly a woman's fantasy, as Helen escapes her old life full of obligations for a new one with a funky apartment, a groovy landlady and cool boyfriend, and jobs that require no actual attachment or commitment. In this book she weathers a hurricane in her landlady's apartment surrounded by a slew of interesting neighbors, friends, and of course, Phil. The formula also gives Viets a chance to skewer different parts of Lauderdale society, while at the same time never becoming old, as Helen changes jobs in every book. This is one of the most delightful cozy series around, genuinely funny, with an endearing heroine who seems like someone who, if you were lucky, you could be friends with yourself. A new Helen Hawthorne novel is always cause for a party, and luckily Elaine Viets herself will visit Aunt Agatha's on May 8 at 7 p.m. Her visit will also be a personal fundraiser for PAWS, as Ms. Viets will donate a dollar to PAWS for every book sold. So not only can you enjoy a swell read yourself, you can donate to a good cause while doing it. How cool is that?
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