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American/Cozy Mysteries

Night Vision, Ellen Hart, St. Martin's Minotaur, $24.95.

Night Vision by Ellen Hart

Ellen Hart is one of the premier practitioners of the traditional mystery, using the tried and true methods of plot, tight quarters, red herrings and actual clues to great effect as her narrative skills are combined with an extraordinary gift with characterization. Her central character, Jane Lawless, is a Minneapolis restauranteur and club owner (Hart, a former restaurant reviewer, brings a great deal of authenticity to this portion of the story) and a more sensible woman you will never encounter. Jane is usually surrounded, however, by chaos, and her natural bent for finding out what's going on and trying to help her friends often lead her into situations which are either dangerous, personally painful, or both. A prime example is her best friend, Cordelia, a flamboyantly overweight theater director who frequently inserts herself into Jane's investigations, often to great comic effect (there's an especially excellent example of this in this novel). There's also Jane's lover, Kenzie, unhappily a few states away and who is mostly off canvas except for one very memorable scene in this book.

There are two central plot lines in Night Vision, both of them extremely compelling. One concerns Jane's college friend, David, who turns up out of the blue on Jane's doorstep (i.e. in her restaurant). Jane is delighted to see him but unaware of the fact that David's partner, Diego, thinks he has vanished into thin air. David is certainly behaving strangely and it takes all of Jane's compassion and patience to bear with him as together they try and unravel just what is wrong with him. The central plot line, however, concerns David's sister, Joanna Kasimir, a famous actress, who has come to Minneapolis to star in Cordelia's production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? There's a backstory to Joanna's arrival - about ten years previously, she had been stalked by a short term boyfriend and was afraid to leave her house for a long time. When she gets to Minneapolis, the stalking seems to have started again, when the very type of roses, Gordon, her ex, used to send her as an apology arrive at the door of her borrowed apartment. Joanna is so freaked out she doesn't want to go outside. She happens to ask Jane if she knows of a private detective and Jane takes time off from work and recruits her friend, former homicide detective A.J. Nolan, to help her track down Gordon, who appears to have settled in a nearby small Minnesota town.

Meanwhile, not only is Cordelia's professional life falling apart - she can't get her star to the theater - but her life on the home front is crumbling too. Her niece, Hattie, who looks on her as a mother thanks to the frequent and extended absences of Cordelia's sister, Ophelia, has her life turned upside down when her mother reappears wanting to "visit". Hart delicately juggles David's crisis with Cordelia's with the deepening suspense and menace of Joanna's situation like the old pro she is. This book is so pleasant to read, so smoothly written, and Hart makes it all seem so easy. Of course the lives of all these intersecting characters, each with their own rich emotional backstory, laid against a complex and gripping plot, can't possibly be easy to pull off. For the reader though, the effort involved won't be apparent, just the enjoyment of meeting up with old friend Jane Lawless, reading about how she straightens out the troubles in everyone's life. It makes you long for a friend just like her.

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