Deader Homes and Gardens (Claire Malloy Series #18)

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Overview

Claire Malloy discovers that house-hunting can be murder—literally—in the latest entry in Joan Hess's "wildly entertaining series." (Mystery Scene)

 

Back from her somewhat unusual honeymoon, Claire Malloy must face the harsh reality of life with her new husband, police chief Peter Rosen, and her teenage daughter Caron—three people simply can’t fit into her cosy two bedroom apartment. After a week of fruitless looking, she finally finds the perfect place—a well preserved ...

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Deader Homes and Gardens (Claire Malloy Series #18)

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Overview

Claire Malloy discovers that house-hunting can be murder—literally—in the latest entry in Joan Hess's "wildly entertaining series." (Mystery Scene)

 

Back from her somewhat unusual honeymoon, Claire Malloy must face the harsh reality of life with her new husband, police chief Peter Rosen, and her teenage daughter Caron—three people simply can’t fit into her cosy two bedroom apartment. After a week of fruitless looking, she finally finds the perfect place—a well preserved large house on a large plot of land in an area called Hollow Valley. There are only a few problems. Such as the real estate agent disappeared mid-showing and hasn’t been seen since. And the last owner died in circumstances labeled ’accidental’ but were actually both ’mysterious’ and ’dubious’. The family that owned the estate is now suing the lover of the dead owner over the rights to the property. Oh, and it isn’t really for sale. When the previous owner’s lover dies practically at her feet, Claire decides to take matters into her own hands. After all, to get the house of her dreams, first she has to find a killer. And all’s fair in love, war, and real estate.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
At the start of Hess’s snappy, sassy 18th Clare Malloy mystery (after 2008’s Mummy Dearest), Claire, who’s just returned from “a decidedly adventurous honeymoon in Egypt” with her new husband, deputy police chief Peter Rosen, realizes that her small apartment in central Farberville, Ark., isn’t big enough for her, Peter, and her 17-year-old daughter, Caron. On the outskirts of town, Clare discovers a roomy 19th-century house on a large lot that she immediately falls in love with. The abrupt disappearance of the real estate agent showing the house heralds a host of complications. The house’s late owner, Winston Martinson, died under mysterious circumstances, and now current owner Terry Kennedy, Winston’s dotty gay lover, has his doubts about selling. Terry eventually offers Clare a lease, but he suffers a fatal collapse before the deal can go through. A cast of eccentric supporting characters, including nursery owner Ethan Hollow and his hippie wife, Pandora Butterfly Saraswati, add local color. Agent: Dominick Abel. (Feb.)
Library Journal
Real-estate problems escalate into murder when newly married Claire Malloy (Mummy Dearest) stumbles into a dangerous housing market. This long-running series never loses steam.
Kirkus Reviews
Finding her dream house turns into a nightmare for Arkansas bookseller Claire Malloy (Damsels in Distress, 2007, etc.). Now that she and hunky deputy police chief Peter Rosen are back from their honeymoon in Egypt, Claire's two-bedroom apartment seems a mite small to house both the happy couple and Claire's daughter Caron. So rather than forcing the moody 17-year-old to move in with her bookish best friend Inez, Claire leaves the Book Depot in the hands of her earnest young clerk and goes off with real estate agent Angela Delmond to plow through Farberville's meager housing stock. Just as Claire finds a beautiful restored Victorian backing onto a meadow, Angela disappears, stranding her client in her dream house. Worse yet, as she tries to complete the deal sans realtor, Claire finds the title to the house shrouded in conflict. Before his fatal plunge into the creek, Winston Hollow left it to his gay lover, Terry Kennedy. Naturally, the Hollow clan is disputing the will. Although his wife, flaky Pandora Butterfly Saraswati, couldn't care less about material possessions, organic farmer Ethan Hollow sees Winston's property as the Hollows' birthright. Righteous Charles Finnelly, related by marriage to Ethan's cousin Felicia, is less concerned with legacy than with losing the land to a godless pervert. Gentle Nattie is torn. She wants the family estate to stay intact but would love a neighbor like Claire to relieve the tedium of caring for her demented Uncle Moses. But it won't be enough to win over the Hollows; in order to buy the house, Claire will need to solve a string of murders. In spite of Claire's sardonic wit and the Hollows' zaniness, Hess' latest is all too predictable, bringing sad truth to Claire's constant refrain: "if this were a mystery novel...".
From the Publisher

PRAISE FOR JOAN HESS AND THE CLAIRE MALLOY SERIES

“Well-paced suspense spiced with wry wit.”—Boston Sunday Herald on Closely Akin to Murder

“Clever…irreverent murder and mayhem.”—Baton Rouge Sunday Advocate on Closely Akin to Murder

“Wickedly amusing.”—Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine on Busy Bodies

“Intriguing…an amusing look at the universal human comedy.”—Fort Smith Times Record

“If you’ve never spent time with Claire and her crew, I feel sorry for you. Stop reading this nonsense and hop to it. You’ll see wit and humanity all wrapped up in a nifty murder mystery.”
—Harlan Coben

“Delightful…worthy of Hercule Poirot in the classic Death on the Nile.”—Publishers Weekly on Mummy Dearest

“A good substitute for a trip to Egypt.”—Deadly Pleasures on Mummy Dearest

“Hess fans will find much to entertain them...”—Publishers Weekly on Damsels in Distress

“Lively, sharp, irreverent.”—The New York Times Book Review on Poisoned Pins

“Larcenous shenanigans…breezy throughout.”—Chicago Tribune on Poisoned Pins

“With her wry asides, Claire makes a most engaging narrator. The author deftly juggles the various plot strands…the surprising denouement comes off with éclat.”—Publishers Weekly on Out on a Limb

“A winning blend of soft-core feminism, trendy subplots, and a completely irreverent style that characterizes both the series and the sleuth.”—Houston Chronicle

“A wildly entertaining series.”—Mystery Scene

“Joan Hess is one of the best mystery writers in the world. She makes it look so easy that few readers and fewer critics realize what a rare talent hers is.”—Elizabeth Peters, author of Tomb of the Golden Bird

“Joan Hess is seriously funny. Moreover, she is seriously kind as well as clever when depicting the follies, foibles, and fantasies of our lives. Viva Joan!”—Carolyn Hart, author of Dead Days of Summer

“Fresh and funny…her trademark humor is stamped on every page.”—Publishers Weekly, on The Goodbye Body

“Breezy and delightful…Claire Malloy is one of the most engaging narrators in mystery.”—The Drood Review

“Hess is one very funny woman.”—Susan Dunlap, former president of Sisters in Crime

“Amiable entertainment with an edge.”—Kirkus Reviews

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312363628
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 2/14/2012
  • Series: Claire Malloy Series , #18
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

JOAN HESS is the author of both the Arly Hanks and the Claire Malloy mystery series, most recently Mummy Dearest. She now lives in Austin, Texas.

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Read an Excerpt

1

 

 

“A house, a house, my kingdom for a house,” I muttered as I crammed a pair of dirty jeans and several shirts under the bed. The bedroom floor still resembled an archipelago of discarded clothes. The hamper was draped with smelly socks and unmentionables. I tripped on a size-twelve sneaker, paused in midair to wonder if I could stuff it down the garbage disposal (had the garbage disposal worked, which it hadn’t in a decade), and stumbled into the bookcase. Paperbacks felleth like the gentle rain upon the place beneath.

The bathroom looked as though it had been vandalized by hordes of Avon ladies and dental assistants. Since my darling husband, Peter, my egomaniacal seventeen-year-old daughter, Caron, and I now shared the space, there were at least three toothbrushes, shampoo and conditioner bottles, crusty toothpaste tubes, mouthwash bottles, towels, hair dryers, razors, and everything else deemed essential to roam hygienically in public. The addition of a third person to the household had proven to be a geometric rather than arithmetic progression in chaos.

After returning home from what turned out to be a decidedly adventurous honeymoon in Egypt, we’d assessed the housing situation. Peter’s house had one bedroom. My apartment had two. Caron had suggested that we put her up in a suite at a hotel, but the only suites to be found in Farberville were in university dorms and did not include maid service. Since I did not consider my marriage a temporary situation, I was not about to settle for a temporary solution. Neither was Peter, who, among his other talents, comes from the old-money aristocracy of New England. This is not to say that any of them was as handsome as Peter, who has molasses-colored eyes, a defined nose, and perfect white teeth. In situations best left unspecified, he blushes adorably. At the moment, he was in the living room, drinking coffee while he read the newspaper. I fetched coffee for myself and joined him.

“I heard you fall,” he said without glancing up—or leaping to his feet to offer solace and a cool compress in case my leg was fractured and blood was dribbling down my pale face.

“Cosmetic surgery should help.”

“That bad?” He turned to the sports page.

“Not yet,” I said, “but it’s a matter of time before one of us slips in the kitchen or runs into an open door. The closets and cabinets are packed with your stuff and my stuff. Caron’s stuff is waist deep in her room. It’s a whole new level of claustrophobia in here. My office at the Book Depot seems spacious in comparison, and that’s with the boiler looming.” I sighed as loudly and despondently as I could.

He finally put aside the paper to offer sympathy in a most charmingly amorous fashion. After making sure no bones were in need of splinting, he sat back up and ran his fingers through his hair. “We can’t have Caron catching us in the middle of such unseemly behavior. She might get all kinds of ideas.”

“She already has all kinds of ideas, most of which I dearly hope I’ll never discover. She and Inez went over to the campus to troll for fraternity boys.”

“I thought she was dating that boy with the speech impediment.”

“Joel does tend to mumble when you glower at him. Perhaps he’d speak up if you stopped growling. He’s a sweet, well brought-up boy, which you already know since you checked to make sure that neither he nor anyone in his family ever received so much as a parking ticket.” I took a sip of coffee and gazed at the mishmash of art, books, furniture, and doodads. “Isn’t there a TV in that corner behind your fishing gear?”

Peter picked up the business section. “We need to find a real house.”

“We as in the two of us?”

“If you want to wait six weeks.” He folded the paper and tucked it under his arm as he stood up. “I’ve got piles of paperwork to dig through before a meeting at ten with the ATF task force. Next week, a four-day seminar, probably in Little Rock or Pine Bluff with the state and federal agents. After that, I’ll be all over the region to coordinate communication systems and interagency cooperation. The governor’s office is coming down on illegal weapons, as well as bootlegged whiskey and tobacco. You and Caron check out the housing market. When you’ve narrowed it down to a final few, I’ll look at them.” His voice rose as I began to sputter. “Whatever you like, darling. You have exquisite taste, and Caron will surely have lots of helpful comments.” He made it out the door before I could tackle him. His size-twelves did not tread lightly as he escaped down the steps and out the front door of the duplex.

I ran out of spittle to sputter. That, and my coffee was getting cold.

*   *   *

Angela Delmond sighed, as did I. The contribution from the backseat sounded like a death rattle. We were parked in front of a very nice house, certainly functional, with a nice kitchen and enough bathrooms to allow privacy for all occupants and the occasional guest. It had a very nice yard in a very nice neighborhood.

“Generic,” Caron pronounced grimly.

Angela took her last shot. “There’s a bakery just three blocks away. They make wonderful croissants. It would be lovely to sit on the patio on Sunday mornings and share the newspaper.”

“Be still my heart,” said a lugubrious voice behind me.

I’d lost count of the number of houses we’d seen in the last week. Along the way I’d also lost my mind. Angela had been ebullient when we began the hunt, ecstatic over walk-in closets, euphoric over bay windows, and rapturous over wine racks. Now the car was thick with gloom. Her spirit had deflated, but her exterior had not been undermined. In her midthirties, her dark hair was styled to soften her jaw; her chin was pointed, and her eyes were slightly slanted, giving her a feline air. The wardrobe I’d seen thus far cost more than my car. She’d told me one of her purses was a steal. If I’d wanted it back in the olden days, that’s the only way I could have gotten it.

Angela’s air of muted despair was a relief. She’d mastered the art of talking without pause to breathe, and I’d been inundated with details about her personal life. I was familiar with her fancy wedding at the country club, her marriage to loathsome, despicable, deceitful, womanizing Danny Delmond, and a divorce-in-progress that sounded as though it might conclude with at least one felony. I was impressed with her tenacious determination to succeed as a single woman on a playing field strewn with chauvinistic land mines. I’d been there, and it wasn’t easy.

“Let’s call it a day,” I said to her. “This is a waste of time for all of us. I really don’t want to have to build, but it’s beginning to seem like the only option.”

“Do you know how long it takes to build a house, Mother?” Caron asked. “Months And Months. By the time you’re ready to move in, I’ll be moving out to go to college. No, I take that back. We’ll all be living in a facility with padded walls. On Thursdays we’ll paint birdhouses or cut out paper snowflakes. Not even Inez will visit us. Just kill me now and spare me the agony.”

“The idea has crossed my mind,” I said over my shoulder. “Something excruciatingly painful, like puffer fish sushi.”

Caron snorted. “Golden poison frogs are more lethal, you know.”

“You get a line, I’ll get a pole,” I sang, “and we’ll all go down to the fishin’ hole.”

Angela delicately cleared her throat. “If I may interrupt for just a moment, Claire, there may be one last house for you to consider. I’d really hate for you to build. As Caron pointed out, it takes countless months. In the fall, it’s slow because the workmen disappear for the various hunting seasons—turkeys, raccoons, deer, ducks, and who knows what else. Danny is nastier than a grizzly bear during the season, ranting about how the plumber had to wait for the tile man, who was waiting for the electrician, who’d gone hunting. One of his subcontractors was killed in a shooting accident. Not surprising, when you think about all these drunks armed with rifles, stomping around the woods. I gave Danny a rifle for his birthday two years ago and told him that only sissies wear orange.”

I bit back a giggle. “One last house?”

“Made out of gingerbread,” Caron said. “I’m not hungry, so how about you drop me off at the mall?”

Angela frowned. “I’ll have to make a call and catch the owner. I’m not sure about certain legal situations.” She held up her hand before I could respond. “This house may be exactly what you’re looking for. If the owner declines, you might reconsider some of the houses we’ve seen. Or I’ll show you property, as long as you swear you won’t use Danny as your contractor. As a child, he never mastered Tinkertoys. After the first storm, you’ll be sitting on a pile of rubble.”

I confessed that I had an aversion to rubble and was willing to look at the mysterious house. Angela discussed the finer points of joint custody of pets (specifically a schnauzer named Flopsy) until she dropped us off at the duplex, promising to call later. Caron, who now had a sensible Japanese compact and a notarized statement promising her the car of her choice (within reason) after high school graduation, headed for Inez’s house to moan and whine about the abuse she’d suffered because of my maniacal insistence that she look at houses with me. I supposed I ought to go to the Book Depot and see how the new clerk had fared, but after a minuscule debate, I poured myself a glass of iced tea, picked up a mystery novel, and went out to my tiny balcony overlooking the campus.

*   *   *

Two days later, Angela called, and an hour later, I was in her car. “I am so excited!” she chirped like a sparrow on caffeine. “I know you’ll love the house. It’s perfect for you! Privacy, a lovely yard with a garden, four bedrooms, and four bathrooms. Although it was built in the eighteen-nineties, it was remodeled and updated three years ago. That’s when the pool was put in. It comes with ten acres that slope down to a river. There’s an apple orchard and a lovely view of the entire valley. As for the price—well, it’s well below market value. I’d buy it myself if it weren’t for this horrendous mess with Danny and his slut.”

“Why isn’t it on the market?” I asked.

“It’s all very complicated, but nothing we girls need to worry about. My broker has experience with estate and probate issues.”

“The owner is dead?” I don’t believe in ghosts, but I do believe in paperwork. When an elderly uncle had died intestate, other family members had come out of the baseboards to sue each other for years while their lawyers drained the assets. “One of Us Girls doesn’t want to fall in love with something that’s unobtainable.” And Caron claims I never listen to her.

Angela, who’d endured several days with Caron’s backseat commentaries, laughed. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”

We drove to the north edge of Farberville and turned onto a blacktop road. A sign proclaimed the proximity of Hollow Valley Nursery. “As in small children?” I asked warily, imagining them darting around the woods like snotty-nosed elves.

“Trees and shrubs and flowers, but strictly wholesale. Well, they do have one sale in the autumn. I bought some red maples a year ago, and they’re doing well. I’d planned to put in a row of crepe myrtles, but Danny’s trying to force the sale of our house. Damned if I’m going to have work done in someone else’s garden! He had the nerve to call this morning to tell me that he’s taking that bimbo to our lake house this weekend. Can you imagine? I’d rather burn it down than have her sunbathing on my deck!” She ground her foot on the gas pedal as if it were the bimbo’s face. Or Danny’s.

I clutched my purse as we bounced over a pothole. I noticed a driveway on the right as Angela spun onto a narrow gravel road on the left. It wound through a wooded patch to the front of the purportedly perfect house. Which was, based on my first glimpse, darn close to perfect.

The house had the allure of a late nineteenth-century gingerbread manor, with gray siding and painted shingles and whimsical white trim. The front door had a transom, and the veranda stretched across the width of the front. A porch swing swayed in the breeze. Forsythia and japonicas bloomed in meticulously random beds. The trees soared beyond the second floor. Angela unlocked the front door. “It may be musty,” she said. “I try to come out here to air it out, but with all these lawyer’s appointments…” She continued talking, but I stopped listening.

In keeping with its Victorian heritage, the ceilings were fifteen feet high and trimmed with crown molding. Hardwood floors glistened. The living room was spacious and sunny. Centered on one wall was a native stone fireplace, with a mantel that supported brass candlesticks and a clock with a pendulum. French doors led to a terrace. The furniture looked as if it had been selected by a very adept designer who’d mixed period pieces with more contemporary styles. There were blank spaces on the walls where art had been hung.

Angela nudged me through a doorway into a dining room with an antique mahogany table and eight chairs. The crystal chandelier sparkled wickedly. “The furniture comes with the house—unless you don’t want it. I’m sure we can find a thrift store to take it.”

My mind was darting too quickly to reply. The kitchen had glistening appliances, a refrigerator large enough to stash a body, and a gas cooktop out of a four-star restaurant. I knew this only because I’d been flipping through magazines featuring the transformation of woodsheds to Tuscan villas with a few gallons of paint and fabric swatches. If I learned how to turn on the appliances, friends could sit at the immense marbletop island and watch me char vegetables and flambé turkeys.

Angela and I continued into the master suite, which was the size of my duplex, give or take a few square feet. The king-sized bed was covered by a ripply white silk spread with matching pillow shams. Another set of French doors led to the back terrace. His and hers dressing rooms, a marble bathroom with a complicated shower, a spacious bathtub, skylights, and heated towel racks. The library at the front of the house had floor-to-ceiling bookcases, a ladder on wheels (be still my heart!), and a serious desk where Important Things Could Take Place.

“You’re beaming like a baby,” Angela said.

I tried to compose myself. “What’s upstairs?”

We toured three bedrooms, all large and sunny. One had a balcony that would suit a certain person who fancied herself as Lady Macbeth one day and Juliet Capulet the next. It also had a private bathroom with a Jacuzzi. A fourth room would serve nicely as another office, should I decide to write my memoirs—or a sewing room should I be struck in the head by lightning.

As we went downstairs, Angela’s cell phone rang. She looked at it, grimaced, and in a curt voice said, “Go have a look at the garden and the pool. The apple orchard is farther beyond.”

I left her hissing into her phone and went outside. The terrace was made of worn bricks in a herringbone pattern. The metal table, chairs, chaise lounge, and glider were nineteen-fifties retro in cheerful colors echoed by flowers and ornamental trees. A lovely place to sip a little something and watch the sunset (if my mental compass was accurate). I continued to the pool, which had a few leaves and sticks in the deep end. It wasn’t Olympic sized, but there was a decent chance it was as large as that of Caron’s nemesis, Rhonda Maguire.

The apple orchard had been there for decades; limbs were gnarled but strong enough to support the abundance of small green apples. The grass between the rows of trees was green and freshly mowed. The aroma was intoxicating. I continued to the far end, where a meadow led down to a lazy stream. Clumps of trees created shady patches that begged for a quilt, a picnic hamper, and a slim volume of poetry.

Indeed, it was the perfect house—if it was available. Even if it wasn’t available, I thought morosely as I walked back to the terrace, it was the perfect house.

Angela was not waiting outside, so I opened the French doors and called her name. I looked in the kitchen, living room, dining room, and master suite. She was not in any of the upstairs rooms, including the bathrooms. I came down the stairs slowly, more irritated than concerned. Irritation turned into annoyance when I opened the front door and saw that her car was no longer there. At least I could stop searching for her, I told myself as I glared at the vacated space. Why on earth would she have driven off, effectively stranding me? To give me time to admire the placement of the linen closet? To stare in awe at the cabinets above the marble countertops? To dance with glee in the laundry room?

I harrumphed for a few more minutes, then went back inside. I’d left my purse in the kitchen, and I was trying to recall if I’d brought my cell phone when I reached the doorway—and froze.

The man standing in front of the refrigerator beamed at me. “Why, hello, hello. You’re early, but do come in and have a seat. Do come in and have a seat. I was about to open a bottle of very nice Bordeaux. Will you join me? Won’t you join me?” He waved a corkscrew at me.

I kept my distance. He appeared to be well over eighty years old, with etched wrinkles, liverish blotches, a nose ineptly carved out of blood sausage, and floppy wet lips. A grungy baseball cap covered most of his bald head. He wore a bowtie and a loosely tied plaid bathrobe.

“I am,” the man continued as he took a bottle of wine out of the rack and attacked it with the corkscrew, “Moses Hollow, great-great-grandson of Colonel Moses Ambrose Hollow, who bought this valley in eighteen sixty-six from President Ulysses S. Grant, despite being a colonel in the CSA. There may have been some funny business with the paperwork.” He cackled as he filled two wineglasses and pushed one across the island. “A thousand acres of prime hardwood. Ol’ Moses built hisself a lumber mill and made out like a bandit during Reconstruction. Let’s toast Colonel Moses Ambrose Hollow!” When I failed to comply, he gave me a disgruntled look. “You a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union? Why, when I wasn’t more than eight years old, I’d go in the wagon with my grandpappy to deliver moonshine to the local saloons. Dodged the revenuers, Grandpappy and I did. Dangerous business, Grandpappy used to say when he was sober. Dangerous business.”

His expression was darkening, so I picked up the glass of wine and took a swallow. “This is a lovely Bordeaux.” I wasn’t afraid of him, since I could topple him with one finger; I was curious. Also stuck at the house until Angela returned from her errand or whatever. “So you live in the valley?”

He turned around to open the refrigerator. He stuck his head so far inside that I wondered if he intended to find a nesting spot, but he emerged with a round wooden box of Brie and a bag of grapes. He located a cutting board, a knife, and a box of crackers. “Where do you think I live? Chattanooga? Chattanooga-choo-choo?”

I was quite sure a dormouse would waddle out of the microwave and request a cup of tea from the man, who was mad if not the Mad Hatter incarnate. “How many members of the Hollow family live here?” I asked.

He stuffed half a dozen grapes in his mouth and chewed vigorously. “Hard to say,” he mumbled as grape pulp dribbled out of the corners of his mouth. “Moses had three daughters and seven sons. Five of the boys survived and got two hundred acres each, but a lot of it got sold over the years. These days most of it’s for the greenhouses. Big greenhouses. Acres of greenhouses. I keep waiting for brimstone to hail down, so’s all those pompous asses will find out what happens to people who live in glass houses. Or earn their living from them, anyhow.” He drank the remaining wine from the bottle, belched, and ducked out of sight. “I tried to warn him, you know, but he thought I was a fool,” his voice continued.

“Warn whom?”

“Love can be lethal. Even a fool knows that.”

I stealthily opened my purse and took out my cell phone. Since I rarely used it, I rarely remembered to charge it. Peter insisted that I carry it, but he and Caron had long since stopped bothering to call me on it. Amazingly, life went on. At this point, however, I was disappointed to note that only electronic resuscitation could help it rise from the dead.

Moses had no such problem. He popped up from the far side of the island, holding another bottle of wine. “Let’s try the merlot, shall we? My dear, you haven’t touched the cheese and crackers. If we’re going to continue our wine-tasting adventure, you really should eat something. We don’t want to get tipsy, do we?”

He seemed to be more dedicated to getting sloshed. I said, “Merlot will be fine. If you’ll excuse me for a moment…” I left before he could refuse to excuse me. There were no landlines in the rooms downstairs or upstairs. I peered out a window in case Angela might be parking in the driveway. Alas, she was not. Reminding myself that sobriety was my only hope of survival, I returned to the kitchen. The merlot bottle was half empty. I followed a trail of cracker crumbs to the living room, where I found Moses asleep on a wide leather sofa.

The situation was ludicrous, I decided as I went into the kitchen for Brie, crackers, and a glass of wine. I took my bounty out to the front porch and sat in the swing. Angela’s phone call must have involved Danny, although if she was on the way to their lake house, I might have a lengthy wait. By no means was I panicky. Other people lived in Hollow Valley, some of whom operated a successful business. They might even have phones.

I decided to give Angela half an hour to reappear before I pondered my next move. I wandered around the yard, admiring the elegant simplicity of the landscaping. It helped, I supposed, to have a nursery nearby. Pine bark mulch kept the beds free of weeds, and even though the house was vacant, the grass was mown. I straightened up and eyed the house. It was whispering seductively to me, encouraging me to put my books in the library and my favorite bits of pottery on the mantel in the living room. Peter would have room to hang up his silk ties and align his Italian shoes on a shelf in his dressing room. Caron could have pool parties under my diligent yet dignified supervision. Cocktail parties on the terrace, and formal dinners abuzz with witty repartee and the clink of crystal (catered, of course).

Peter and Caron might object to the minor commute into Farberville’s downtown area. I would suggest that they live in one of the generic houses and visit me on weekends and holidays. If Angela couldn’t convince the buyer to sign over the house, my revenge would make her divorce seem like springtime in Paris.

It was approaching the time to take action of some sort. Unless Angela had communicated with her office, she was the only other person (besides Moses and me) who knew where I was. I wasn’t all that sure myself. Hollow Valley had been inhabited since the post–Civil War era, but I’d been in Farberville for twenty years and I’d never heard of it.

Moses had rolled over but was still breathing. I picked up my purse and headed down the lane that led to the paved road. I did so at a leisurely pace, listening to birds and keeping an eye out for snakes and other evils that lurk in the darker fringe of nature. I was alarmed when a woman popped out from an unseen path. She was trim, dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, and had a frizzy brown ponytail restrained by a shoelace, and a broad face.

“Oops, I hope I didn’t startle you,” she said.

“I hope I didn’t startle you.”

“Nothing could startle me around here,” she said, laughing. “I’m Natalie Hollow-Brown, but please call me Nattie. And you?”

“Claire Malloy. I came here with a real estate saleswoman to look at the house. Now she’s vanished and I’m stranded.”

Nattie raised her eyebrows. “Winston’s house is on the market?”

“I’m not sure about its status, but Angela told me that she spoke to the owner.”

“How very, very interesting,” she murmured, “but none of my business. Have you happened to see an elderly man wandering around? I’m afraid I’ve lost him.”

I gestured at the house behind me. “He found some wine and decided to take a nap on the sofa. I really need to make a phone call. Can you help me?”

Nattie glanced back at the house. “Let that old coot sleep it off where he is. He’ll show up for supper. Or he won’t, which is fine with me. You’re welcome to come home with me and use the phone.” She hesitated. “Are you going to call the police?”

“Actually, I am,” I said, “in that my husband’s the deputy chief of the Farberville Police Department. I need him to come pick me up. That way, he can have a look at the house. I hope he’ll be as excited as I am.” I would see that he was, if it meant we had to make love on the dining room table. And in the meadow, and again on silk sheets. Whatever personal sacrifices were necessary.

As we started walking in the direction of the paved road, she said, “I’d better warn you about your potential neighbors. I talk to my plants and read half a dozen fantasy novels a week, but I am by far the sanest of the lot—even though the petunias talk back. It may be a genetic flaw. Old Moses Ambrose Hollow was purported to be a drunken tyrant. He was acquitted of murder charges twice due to expeditious financial exchanges with judges and juries. Before he died, he ordered a bronze statue of himself to be placed in the area in front of the Old Tavern. It’s still there, since nobody in the family has the nerve to even suggest that we remove it. It gives me the creeps whenever I’m near it.”

“Because it might come to life?”

“Wait until you get a look at his seriously ugly face. The gargoyles at Notre Dame are a damn sight more handsome than he was. I doubt he’ll stumble down from his pedestal to terrorize the countryside and incite the peasants to riot and burn down the mill. No, I worry that a gust of wind will topple him when I’m too close.”

When we reached the pavement, I pointed at the road I’d noticed earlier. “Is that a driveway?”

“Yes, it leads to the Elysian Fields, where the wonders of nature are constrained only by the horizon,” Natty said. “It ends at the home of Ethan Hollow and his wife, Pandora Butterfly Saraswati. When they got married, Pandora changed her last name from Kumari.” She tried to contain her amusement, but her effort was less than convincing. “Kumari is the Hindu virgin goddess, you see, and Saraswati is the divine consort of Lord Brahma. I don’t think we should assume Pandora was a virgin, much less a virgin goddess. She and Ethan met at an ashram in Oregon.”

“So she’s a Buddhist named for Greek and Hindu goddesses? The theology seems a bit tangled,” I said as I tried to visualize a woman dressed in traditional garb from three religions, along with gold wings and a tinsel halo.

“She’s an egotistical flake,” Nattie replied, “but harmless. Her children, on the other hand, are vicious weasels. Pandora believes in allowing them to run free in order to expand their consciousness to become one with the universe, or some nonsense like that. Their names are Rainbow and Weevil. Don’t be fooled by their innocent smiles and guileless eyes. Remember the movie Village of the Damned?”

“I’ll watch out for them. What about Ethan?”

Nattie thought for a moment. “He was a rather ordinary boy until he went away to college. He got involved with a radical environmentalist group and dropped out of school to save whales and hug trees. When his parents died in a car crash, he showed up with long, greasy hair and grubby clothes and a contemptuous smirk. I noticed that he spent a lot of time talking to his uncle, Charles Finnelly. I later found out it was about the family business, although I don’t know the details. Six weeks after that, Ethan arrived with Pandora and they moved into what had been his parents’ house. That was seven years ago. Now he supervises the production end of the business, while Charles and Felicia handle the commercial side. Margaret Louise does the bookkeeping and all the paperwork concerning taxes, licenses, and employees’ paychecks. Hollow Valley Nursery is a big enterprise.” She pointed at an area of pine trees and undergrowth on the right side of the road. “The greenhouses are over that way, along with outbuildings, cold storage facilities, pumps, irrigation systems, and a garage. There are four delivery trucks, but they won’t be a bother because they use a road that leads east to some highway. HVN delivers to Missouri, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. Five years ago Ethan and Charles decided to start a twenty-acre Christmas tree farm. The first harvest will be this season. Each year they’ve planted four acres of seedlings, so there will always be a fresh crop for Christmas. I suspect it will be very lucrative.” She picked up a rock and threw it in the direction of the greenhouses. “As if it matters anymore.” Her cackle splintered the bucolic serenity. Unable to respond, I kept my eyes on the pavement and cursed my cell phone’s untimely demise.

We turned left and continued up the road. I learned that the second driveway on the left led to the home of Felicia and Charles Finnelly, Felicia being the Hollow descendant. According to my guide, they were in their fifties, very conservative in matters of politics and religion, and tedious. “They both prance around like royals, looking down their snouts at those of us who are mere peasants. I keep waiting for them to whinny,” Nattie said. “Beyond their acreage is the green, if you will. Margaret Louise lives in the mill. The exterior is original, but the interior has been remodeled and has two bedrooms upstairs and a lovely sitting room. Presiding over the green is the Old Tavern, where Moses and I reside. It’s a dreary place, but I don’t have the energy to do anything about it. At night, I hear voices from the original taproom. Nasty, sullen voices. I keep my bedroom door locked and a shotgun next to my bed. There were dozens of murderous brawls over the years, and—”

She broke off as we caught sight of the statue in the middle of the green. Colonel Hollow had his bronze arm raised to send his troops into battle or to order pioneers to go west. The body dangling on a rope tied around his arm did not appear to be going anywhere soon.

 

Copyright © 2012 by Joan Hess

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Sort by: Showing all of 13 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 8, 2013

    Another good one

    Very enjoyable, light mystery. Joan Hess has mastered her craft. Her readers know what to expect and she doesn't disappoint She provides a refreshing break from "manly" mysteries without adding too much "fluff".

    Three stars for the book but four stars for a Joan Hess novel.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 18, 2013

    Recommend

    Entertaining, decent paced, a fun social mystery read.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 13, 2013

    Great!

    I always love Joan Hess- she's my turn to author for fast, fun reads and this one did not disappoint!!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 12, 2012

    A very fun summer read. The book reminded me of the Ms Marple de

    A very fun summer read. The book reminded me of the Ms Marple detective stories. I read it in two days and enjoyed it very much.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted June 30, 2012

    Really good book!!!

    This kept me guessing till the end. I don't try too hard to figure mysteries out so the entertainment value is more enjoyable.

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  • Posted May 9, 2012

    Such a disappointment!

    The plot was slow and the story felt old and tired. The characters were uninteresting and even Caron Speaking in Capitals was no longer funny. I think it's time for Hess to return to Maggody, because Farberville needs some time off.

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  • Posted May 3, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    The Claire Malloy mysteries are light entertainment that doesn't

    The Claire Malloy mysteries are light entertainment that doesn't strain your brain. The plot is a framework for Claire's comic observations about the other characters. Her daughter Caron and her best friend Inez always add a few escapades. We never get attached to victims and the danger is usually low key. This entry involves real estate and a weird family of Southern aristocrats. I f you liked the other books you will enjoy it. Just don't expect Ross Macdonald or Dashiell Hammett.

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  • Posted March 18, 2012

    Excellent!

    Joan Hess never disappoints. It's a light, funny, fast read.

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    Posted February 29, 2012

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    Posted December 7, 2013

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    Posted January 30, 2012

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    Posted February 15, 2012

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