REVIEW: Scoop to Kill

Note: This review originally appeared in The Season E-Zine's September mystery section.
Scoop to Kill by Wendy Lyn Watson
Obsidian Mass Market Paperback, September 2010

Rating: 9 (Excellent) (The Season's rating scale runs from 1 to 10.)

Tally Jones shows up at Dickerson University's Honor's Day expecting to celebrate her niece Alice's academic achievement, and maybe drum up some business for her ice cream parlor, Remember the A-la-mode. Things take a turn for the unexpected, though, when Alice stumbles across the body of a dead grad student just as the festivities are about to begin. Alice's professor seems the obvious culprit, but then winds up dead herself. Can Tally figure out whodunit in time to prevent the killer from striking again?

Scoop to Kill is the second in Wendy Lyn Watson's Mystery a la Mode series. I've yet to read the series debut, I Scream, You Scream, but I didn't find that this at all hindered my enjoyment of Scoop to Kill. In fact, I'd say Scoop to Kill is a must-read for anyone who loves cozy mysteries. It's well-paced, cleverly plotted, and beautifully written. The mystery is smart -- complicated, but not too, with clues dropped in all the right places -- and Watson's prose is both witty and refined. Her descriptions are lush and vivid, from her people to her places to her ice cream (strawberry balsamic, anyone?) and her characters are fully realized to a one. Her dialogue is sharp and reads effortlessly -- a feat considering she writes many of her characters with a Southern drawl. And for those who like a little romance with their murder, Tally's encounters with bad-boy Finn and straight-arrow Cal provide a nice hint of sizzle.

It's worth noting Tally isn't your stereotypical amateur sleuth. She doesn't even play the role of detective much during the first three quarters of the book; rather, the mystery sort of unfolds around her while she's busy doing other things. While I found this a refreshing change from the typical busybody-who-constantly-finds-herself-in-the-thick-of-active-police-investigations protagonist, it ultimately cost Scoop to Kill a sense of urgency, which is the only reason I didn't give this book a perfect 10. Tally's interest in solving the mystery seemed less about catching the killer than avenging the victims' deaths and bringing closure to their loved ones. This is a laudable goal, but I missed the sense of imminent danger I've come to expect from murder mysteries -- the knowledge that if the protagonist doesn't catch the killer and soon, Something Terrible (or at least Something Really Unfortunate) will happen to her or someone she loves. That's not to say Scoop to Kill doesn't have a satisfying conclusion (quite the opposite -- I loved both the resolution of the mystery and the end of the book) or is in any sense a slow read (to the contrary, I couldn't put it down), but ideally, I'd have liked the stakes for Tally to have been just a little higher.

Scoop to Kill's humor and larger-than-life characters are reminiscent of something you'd see in a Donna Andrews book, while Nancy Atherton fans will no doubt appreciate Watson's charm and skillful prose. With just one book, Watson has maneuvered herself onto my list of must-read authors. Tally makes a smart and charming hero, and I eagerly look forward to her next adventure.