It is fascinating how two mysteries with first-person narrators, similar settings (small towns) and heroines (women struggling over whether to divorce their husbands) can be so different. Working Stiff goes for laughs, while For Better, For Murder tugs at the heartstrings.
In Working Stiff, set in Wisconsin, Mattie, a former nurse, has just started working as a coroner after finding her surgeon husband in a compromising position with another nurse. Since the house she shared with her husband is right next door to her new place, Mattie can’t help spying on him, and one night she witnesses him arguing with the other woman. Shortly afterward, Mattie is called to a murder scene: the victim is the other woman, making her husband the primary suspect.
Mattie has earthy sensibilities and big appetites; despite her unresolved marital situation, she finds herself very attracted to the detective investigating the case. Unable to contain her own curiosity, fueled by her need to know if her husband is guilty of more than infidelity, Mattie, in her new role as deputy coroner, starts her own investigation. Since she knows everyone in the victim’s world, she can do this with some ease. Both Nancy Drew and Agatha Christie are invoked, and several funny episodes occur on the way to Mattie solving the crime and coming to a decision about her marriage.
Here’s hoping Annelise Ryan will give us more of Mattie’s mother (“a modern day Nostradamus” and “many-times honored member of the Disease of the Month club”) in the next installment.
Meanwhile, in Lisa Bork’s For Better, For Murder, set in New York’s Finger Lakes, Jolene Asdale is struggling to keep her car business alive when a dead body falls out of the Ferrari she is showing to a customer. That’s bad enough, but the victim is a man she briefly dated and recently had a widely witnessed (and wrong interpreted) discussion with about business zoning. The man who is investigating the murder is the husband she hasn’t been able to bring herself to divorce even though she left him three years before. And then Jolene’s bipolar sister, who has been overhearing threats to Jolene (or are they just more of her voices?), disappears from the state psychiatric facility. Is she now part of a team robbing local convenience stores? Jolene’s husband Ray is convinced Jolene knows more about everything than she is admitting. Meanwhile, she’s trying “not to notice that Ray still carries a picture of [her] in his wallet.”
Jolene turns detective to save herself and her sister, giving Bork a chance to explore what’s it’s like to own a small business in a small town where everyone knows your business. Like Ryan, she includes gay characters while taking care to point out that there are still difficulties with being gay in a small town. Jolene, whose family history of mental illness haunts her, is a touching character. The plot is a little complicated, but the series has promise and the book ends with a happy twist.
Joanne Collings cozies up with a good book or two in Washington, D.C.