REVIEW: Death, Taxes, and a French Manicure

Death, Taxes, and a French Manicure by Diane Kelly
St. Martin’s, November 2011 (368 pages)

Rating: 9

For fans of: Susan Isaacs

Tara Holloway hasn’t seen a dull moment since starting work for the Treasury Department’s Criminal Investigations Division. She used to spend her days pushing paper in a tiny cubicle, but her new career has her carrying a badge, wielding a gun, and conducting investigations in the field. She’s even been tasked with helping the DEA bust an ice cream man who’s selling a lot more than popsicles to the neighborhood children (drug money’s taxable, dontcha know).

Her love life’s gotten more interesting too, thanks to a burgeoning romance with hunky landscape architect Brett Ellington. But just as things are starting to heat up for the couple, Tara uncovers a link between Brett and a suspected Ponzi scheme operator that causes her to slam on the brakes. Are the ties between the men mere coincidence, or does Tara not know her boyfriend as well as she thinks she does? Can she date someone she’s investigating? Can she investigate someone she’s dating? Ah, the perils of mixing business with pleasure…

Death, Taxes, and a French Manicure is the first of author Diane Kelly’s Tara Holloway Novels. I confess, I worried whether any book with an IRS agent for a protagonist and the word “taxes” in the title could keep me entertained for 368 pages, but Kelly defies expectation with this smart, sexy debut. Her prose is witty and stylish. Her mystery is seamlessly constructed, and includes just enough banking and finance information to inform the story, but not so much as to bore or confuse the reader. And for those of you who like a little sizzle with your intrigue, well – let’s just say there’s a reason this book garnered Kelly an award from the Romance Writers of America. The story is a bit of a slow burn, as Kelly definitely takes her time setting the scene and moving her pieces into place, but the narrative drive is strong, and like a good game of Mouse Trap, the payoff is well-worth the wait.

When I started this book, I wondered if perhaps its characters would be its downfall; to a one, they’re bold and brash and larger than life. Now, don’t get me wrong – big is better than boring, and I’d take a caricature over a piece of cardboard any day of the week. But when an entire cast is turned up to eleven, it can be exhausting to try and spend the length of an entire novel in their company.

Thankfully, however, in fiction as in real life, relationships inform character, and Kelly’s characters’ relationships are their saving grace. Case in point: Tara, our heroine, is introduced to us as a sharp-shooting, ass-kicking country girl by day, and a merlot-sipping, stiletto-sporting, semi-sex-obsessed woman by night. She’s irreverent and entertaining, yes, but a little too self-consciously so – like maybe she’s trying too hard to make us notice her or something. (Who the hell puts maraschino cherries in their red wine?) This hyper-color version of Tara is just a first impression, though; as soon as she starts interacting with her fellow castmates, her true colors shine through. From her unlikely friendship with "Latina Barbie" DEA Agent Christina Marquez to her schizophrenic romance with mysterious boyfriend Brett, Tara’s relationships serve to humanize her, the end result being a charming, likable, and thoroughly unique protagonist.

Looking for a fun new read? Check out Death, Taxes, and a French Manicure by Diane Kelly. Part romance, part thriller, and part comedic mysery, it's just the thing to help keep you warm on a chilly autumn night.