REVIEW: Murder for Choir

Note:  This review originally appeared in The Season E-Zine's July mystery section.

Murder for Choir by Joelle Charbonneau
Berkley Prime Crime (July 3, 2012)
304 pages

Rating:  4.5/5 (Amazing) (The Season's rating scale now runs from 1 to 5)

For fans of:  Diane Kelly, Wendy Lynn Watson

Paige Marshall is a struggling opera singer.  A struggling, out-of-work opera singer with bills to pay, to be more precise.  Which means that until her manager can find her a paying gig, she's stuck living with her Aunt Millie in Lake Forest, Illinois and coaching the Prospect Glen High School show choir.  The job should be easy money, but unfortunately for Paige, it’s anything but; her students neither like her nor have any confidence in her ability to lead them to the championships, and her co-coach, Larry DeWeese, is utterly lacking in creativity and completely intimidated by Greg Lucas, the slimy, egotistical coach of their show choir rivals from North Shore High.

Paige is determined to win over the kids and lead them to victory – or, at the very least, to make a go of it until something better comes along – but then Greg Lucas is found dead, a microphone cord wrapped around his neck, and she’s forced to wonder just how much more impossible that task can become.  Not only is Prospect Glen’s best male singer at the top of the police’s suspect list, but Paige’s co-coach has been acting awfully suspicious, as well.  Paige knows Prospect Glen doesn’t stand a chance of winning this year if either man winds up behind bars (and she’s pretty sure neither of them is a murderer), so she decides to do some digging and solve Greg’s murder herself.  That should win her brownie points with her students, right?  If her investigation doesn’t get her killed first, that is…

Murder for Choir is the first of Joelle Charbonneau’s Glee Club Mysteries, and if the debut is any indication, Berkley’s got a winner of a series on their hands.  Charbonneau writes with a young, hip voice that’s witty, engaging, and perfectly suited to the story she’s telling.  The book has a strong narrative drive and the prose has a snappy, staccato rhythm to it that keeps the pace moving right along.  The setup is fun; the mystery is cleverly constructed with viable suspects, clues, and red herrings galore; and the book manages to be riotously funny without falling into farce, which is no mean feat.  The book contains just enough music and show choir references to earn its theme, but not so many as to turn off the non-musically-inclined among us; Glee, it’s not (and that’s a good thing).

Charbonneau’s character work is strong, as well.  Paige is everything you could hope for in a leading lady.  Strong, smart, funny, and charmingly self-deprecating, she’s the kind of character you’d happily befriend if you met her in real life, and her sweetly antagonistic relationship with her Aunt Millie's misanthropic poodle, Killer, is both hilarious and heartwarming.  Aunt Millie is a hoot and a half, and (like her poodle) adds equal measures of heart and comic relief to the story.  Curmudgeonly Detective Mike Kaiser and rakish drama teacher Devlyn O’Shea make for compelling potential love interests, and the triangle developing between the two of them and Paige promises to provide no shortage of drama for books to come. And poor Larry manages to be at once pathetic and threatening – an entertaining and unexpected combination in a murder suspect, to be sure.

Like a little harmony and humor with your homicide? You’ve found your match in Joelle Charbonneau’s Murder for Choir; it’s heckuva fun read, and a great way to kick off your summer reading season.