REVIEW: One Hot Murder

One Hot Murder by Lorraine Bartlett
Berkley Prime Crime (304 pages)
February 5, 2013

For fans of:  Maggie Sefton

Rating:  7 (A decent read.)

Ever since Katie Bonner inherited the failing artists' co-op known as Artisans Alley, she's had to work extra hard just to keep the place from falling into bankruptcy. The Alley needs to draw in every customer it can to stay afloat, so when one of the neighboring shops is torched by an arsonist and the police find an unidentified corpse inside, Katie worries the negative publicity associated with the crimes could do serious damage to the co-op's bottom line. Can she help the police catch the culprit and close the case before the customers start to flee, or will the criminal's next victim be the Alley, itself?

One Hot Murder is the third of Lorraine Bartlett’s Victoria Square Mysteries, and about half of it is a really entertaining read.  Unfortunately, it’s the second half of the book that’s worth your time, which means that in order to get there, you’re going to have to slog through the first 150 pages.  Not that the first 150 pages are unreadable; far from it.  But the pace is slow, there’s not much action or drama, and the drama that is there feels forced and manufactured.  Most of the scenes have little, if anything, to do with the central mystery, and instead only serve to document the petty infighting that’s taking place amongst the vendors and merchants.  As a result, being in Katie’s head for this part of the book makes you feel like you’re tagging along with someone as they progress through an incredibly aggravating workweek, and that’s not much fun for anyone involved.  Nobody really seems to care that someone’s dead or that there’s a killer on the loose, which means there’s no sense of urgency, and Bartlett never quite brings Artisans Alley to life, which makes it even harder to get caught up in Katie’s narrative.

The back half of Bartlett’s tale is actually quite engrossing, though.  The mystery is complex and very neatly constructed, and there are some genuinely clever twists and red herrings mixed in.  Bartlett’s fashioned a puzzle that will definitely keep readers guessing, and if you can make it this far, you’ll have a hard time putting the book down until you’ve reached the end.

Katie is a decent heroine; she’s definitely got gumption and isn’t afraid to take control of a situation to get what she wants, even if it means stepping on some toes or ruffling some feathers.  And I really like the way her relationship with formerly grumpy Detective Ray Davenport is progressing; it’s sweet, and it’s funny, and there’s not an ounce of romance to it, which is kind of refreshing for a traditional mystery cop-sleuth partnership.  Unfortunately, however, she shares almost no chemistry with purported love interest Andy, which makes for some awkward scenes. The couple comes off more like brother and sister than a pair of lovers, and I found myself desperately hoping some new potential suitor would appear on the scene.

The best traditional mysteries are never all about the mystery – I know that; but there should never be so much padding that one occasionally can’t even find the mystery.  Especially if said mystery is good enough to deserve center stage.