January Thaw (Murder-by-Month Series #9)

January Thaw (Murder-by-Month Series #9)

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by Jess Lourey

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The Ice Man Succumbeth

Private-eye-in-training Mira James loves Minnesota’s crisp January days, as long as she can spend them in the arms of hunky Johnny Leeson. But when Mrs. Berns’s erratic Zamboni driving uncovers an icebound dead man, Mira’s cold-weather tranquility threatens to melt away.

With a frozen body in the lake and a freak

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The Ice Man Succumbeth

Private-eye-in-training Mira James loves Minnesota’s crisp January days, as long as she can spend them in the arms of hunky Johnny Leeson. But when Mrs. Berns’s erratic Zamboni driving uncovers an icebound dead man, Mira’s cold-weather tranquility threatens to melt away.

With a frozen body in the lake and a freak January thaw descending on town, neither Johnny nor generous portions of high-octane comfort food are enough to ease Mira’s frazzled nerves. There’s big trouble brewing in Battle Lake. And if Mira can’t figure out who’s behind it, the next time she feels sub-zero temperatures, she may be sporting a toe tag in the town morgue.


"Those looking for an engaging, multigenerational small-town mystery that tackles contemporary issues can’t miss with this entry."—Library Journal

"Fans of smalltown mysteries will be charmed."—Publishers Weekly

"Who can resist a mystery that includes a daredevil octogenarian sidekick; a flashy, plant-whispering mayor; some really bad villains; and a little girl ghost?"—Booklist

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In Lourey’s wry ninth Mira James outing (after 2012’s December Dread), the high-spirited heroine stays true to her pattern of finding a new homicide for every month that she lives in the tiny town of Battle Lake, Minn. This particular month’s case involves a man’s body discovered under the frozen surface of a local skating pond. As Mira tries to identify the stiff, she also looks into the nonfatal shooting of the local police chief, Gary Wohnt. This while running the library, reporting for the local paper, trying to obtain a private investigator’s license, and dealing with a boyfriend, Johnny Leeson, she adores but doesn’t trust. Mira’s main ally, the 80-year-old, outspokenly horny Mrs. Berns, can either seem delightfully eccentric or like a pain in the gluteus maximus—like Battle Lake’s other residents—but fans of smalltown mysteries will be charmed. Agent: Victoria Skurnick, Levine Greenberg Literary Agency. (Jan.)
Library Journal
Librarian Mira James knew Maurice Jackson, the young black man from Chicago who had recently become a library regular, because he had asked for local history books about Battle Lake, MN. So she is horrified when his corpse floats just below the ice during the community's Winter Wonderland festival. Maurice's link to Battle Lake appears to be the historic Prospect House Civil War Museum. If Mira can tease out the clues left behind, perhaps she can fulfill a promise made 150 years earlier. Alas, Mira's own personal meltdown threatens to throw her off course, and readers familiar with her struggles with alcohol will worry. VERDICT Lourey's trademark humor effectively complements the soft-boiled investigating by the in-training PI Mira James. Those looking for an engaging, multigenerational small-town mystery that tackles contemporary issues can't miss with this entry, number nine in the series (after December Dread).
Kirkus Reviews
If it's January in Minnesota, it must be time for amateur sleuth Mira James to find another corpse. It's a pretty decent life Mira has made for herself in the village of Battle Lake (population 747) as the head librarian, a part-time reporter and a not-yet-licensed detective--if you don't count her habit of stumbling across corpses on a regular basis. Her most recent find is a frozen body near the dunking hole for the Winter Wonderland Festival. What makes the discovery more poignant is that the deceased, Maurice Jackson, tried to rescue Mira and her man-hungry octogenarian assistant, Mrs. Berns, from two of his fellow gang members. A letter that a possible ancestor of Maurice's wrote in 1865 compels Mira to dig more deeply to find out what really brought Maurice to Battle Lake. In addition, she takes on a case involving a missing descendant of the original owner of Prospect House, a mansion-turned–Civil War museum, and tangles with the police chief, the Battle Lake mayor/pet psychologist and her narcoleptic dachshund, and an ex-boyfriend who stirs up needless trouble between Mira and her current squeeze--not to mention that Prospect House ghost. You have to wonder what Mira will do when she runs out of calendar months. Marry her perfect boyfriend and get out of the beleaguered police chief's way? Lourey (December Dread, 2012, etc.) has a feel for small-time life but not for when to stop introducing whackadoodle eccentrics who are not so much comic as annoying.

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Product Details

Midnight Ink
Publication date:
Murder-by-Month Series, #9
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)

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A Murder-By-Month Mystery

By jess lourey

Llewellyn Worldwide Ltd.

Copyright © 2014 Jess Lourey
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7387-3875-8


The world was safely tucked in under blankets of snow. I navigated Battle Lake's well-lit main street, pushing against the weather with hands shoved deep into fleece mittens and chin tucked into my neck. I could have driven the eight blocks from the library to the Fortune Café, but this was my favorite kind of snowfall—the flakes drifting down lazy and white like dandelion fluff. The outdoors felt cozy, the air scrubbed clean by ice crystal ions, all sound muffled in soft white snow.

Earlier today, Jack Bloom had mentioned that a January thaw was on its way. I believed that about as much as I bought into the covers of the pulp fiction books he checked out weekly. It was currently six below, not counting the windchill. The glittering Christmas garlands had been removed from the light posts just a week earlier. Plus, this was Minnesota. If the thermometer topped zero in January, we referred to that as a "warm snap." I didn't expect to see above-freezing temps until March. That was fine by me—winter is a magical season, if you have the heart for it.

I took another step, admiring how the snow dusted up like smoke. If you'd told me a year ago that I'd be living in Battle Lake, Minnesota, population 747 and dropping, spending an evening walking and admiring the weather, I'd have laughed in your face. But sometimes, life steers and all we can do is hang on. For my part—

"Are you writing a book in your head or just trying to hold in a fart?"

I glanced over at Mrs. Berns. I'd almost forgotten she was with me. As if. She was in her eighties, sharper than me on my best day, and my closest friend. She also possessed a wicked tongue, blended in nowhere, and courted trouble with the same single-minded focus she used to chase men.

"Because if it's the latter," she continued, "I suggest you let 'er rip. The only people stupid enough to step outside in this weather wouldn't complain about the extra heat. That includes me, by the way. Remind me again why we're walking?"

"It's a gorgeous night." I kicked up another puff of snow. "And you didn't have to come with, you know."

My plan for the evening had been to close up the library and grab a bowl of Sid's famous firehouse chili and an olive cream cheese-slathered bagel to go. I could visit with Nancy while Sid readied my order, then shuffle back to the library to grab my car and head on home to enjoy a quiet dinner with my cat, dog, and TV. I normally enjoyed cooking, but the library had gotten so busy today that I'd had to skip lunch and work well past normal closing hours. My stomach was burbling like a tar pit. When Mrs. Berns, who was also my assistant at the library, heard of my evening plans, she suggested we head to the Fortune Café together.

She loved Sid's homemade bagels almost as much as I did. They were chewy on the outside, soft on the inside, and the perfect vehicle for cream cheese salted with thick olive slices. Turns out the food was only one of the unexpected rewards of moving to Battle Lake, the teeny-tiny town I'd relocated to last March. Previously I'd been living in Minneapolis, a grad-school English major dropout paying the bills with tips from my waitressing gig at a Vietnamese restaurant on the West Bank. My boyfriend at the time was a bass player who turned out to be a little too free with his "music." On top of all that, I was regularly drinking too much. On that fateful day when Sunny, a friend of a friend, asked me to house-sit for her in Battle Lake, I'd gotten flashed by a vagrant whose business looked like a sad little green bean that had sat in the microwave for too long. Voilá. The scales tipped.

What was supposed to be a few months of house-sitting had grown into an open-ended appointment. Despite having lived in Battle Lake for nearly a year, however, I was and always would be "not from around here." Plus, I'd developed a distasteful habit of discovering one corpse a month since May. A lesser woman would think herself cursed. I'd been raised by a codependent mother eligible for sainthood and an alcoholic father who'd killed himself and the occupants of an oncoming car in a drunk-driving accident when I was a sophomore in high school, and so I had a different perspective on life. I was, of all things, an optimist, though one who was always waiting for the other shoe to drop.

The inaugural dead body appeared about the time I landed my first job in town. Both the job and the corpse were located at the Battle Lake Public Library. When the head librarian disappeared shortly after the murder, I'd been promoted to fill in for him until someone qualified could be found; a budget cut plus the fact that I kept "losing" applications kept that possibility at bay. The most recent carcass had almost been mine. Three weeks ago, an honest-to-goodness serial killer—nicknamed the Candy Cane Killer by the press—had hunted me like an animal, stalking close enough to leave scars that I'd carry for the rest of my life, inside and out. I hadn't slept a full night since, though I refused to reveal that when anyone asked how I was. Admitting it out loud would make it too real. Besides, to whom could I confess that I'd started sleeping under my bed instead of on it—that every evening before I drifted off for an hour or two, my nose inches from the box springs, I wondered if I'd gone too far to ever feel safe again?

And so I kept my mental state to myself. I worked, I laughed, I played, and I watched the shadows.

On a positive note, I'd discovered more about myself since moving here than I could have imagined. My drinking was mostly in check, I had begun to repair my relationship with my mom and make peace with the memory of my dad, I was pursuing my PI license based on the belief that the Universe was telling me it was that or become a mortician, and I'd even fallen in love with a guy who walked upright. His name was Johnny Leeson, and he was a horticulturist and lead singer for a local band.

Tall, with strong hands, a great smile, and wavy blonde hair, if Johnny was food, he'd be chocolate. And if he was drink, he'd be a rare red wine. I still didn't entirely trust that somebody as amazing as him was all mine, but I was willing to work on it. We'd been dating exclusively, more or less, for a few months. And over Christmas, the file I'd started on Johnny had finally gotten indexed, if you know what I mean. It was everything I'd imagined, except for the location: my childhood bedroom. He'd been busy since then starting the spring seedlings at the local nursery and playing gigs all over the Midwest with The Thumbs. Subsequently, we hadn't gotten to repeat the glory we'd first discovered under the Jimmy Page and Leif Garrett posters my mom still kept up in my room, though we did have a date planned for tomorrow night.

"You're thinking about Johnny now, aren't you?" Mrs. Berns said, interrupting my thoughts for the second time. "You better not take up poker. You're easier to read then a comic strip. With large print."

I realized I'd been smiling as I walked through the fairy snow, and that made me beam even wider. "He's pretty cute, isn't he?"

"You could do worse."

The occasional car burred past us as we briskly covered the eight blocks, but it was almost seven at night and all the businesses except for the Apothecary and the Rusty Nail were closed in accordance with their winter hours. Theadora, manager of the Apothecary, glanced up from rearranging her Valentine's Day window display as Mrs. Berns and I strolled past. She waved, and we returned the gesture before crossing the street. We'd nearly reached the end of the block, encased again in our own thoughts and body heat, when I heard what sounded like a child crying to my right.

I stopped and cocked my ear. When the snowflakes get this big, they sometimes warp sound.

"Hear that?" I asked.

Mrs. Berns kept walking toward the intersection. "My feet crying out from the cold? My stomach growling from starvation? Yep and yep."

"No, it's definitely something." I pointed at the alley entrance between the post office and an abandoned building that used to house a movie rental store. "From down there. I can't tell if it's a person or an animal."

Mrs. Berns returned to my side to listen with me.

The plaintive cry repeated itself, high and whining, at a pitch that thrummed a deeply instinctual fear chord. The six below temperature suddenly felt ominous, and my blood turned sluggish. The leering face of the Candy Cane Killer returned to me, unbidden: handsome, banal, deadly. Familiar. I forced myself to breathe regularly, repeating like a mantra the fact that the police station was only two blocks away.

"Should we run for help?" I asked. I was grateful that my voice worked.

"Excellent idea," Mrs. Berns said. "Nothing Chief Wohnt would prefer to do tonight than check on a rabbit stuck in a snowy alley. Unless you broke a nail? Because he'd want to hear about that as well."

I realized I'd been holding my breath. I released it in a sharp gush. Mrs. Berns was right. The Candy Cane Killer was in a maximum-security prison in Chicago. He couldn't get me. There was nothing horrible down that alley. It was only a hurt animal. And I'd feel like an ass if I called out the guards for a rabbit, not to mention Chief Gary Wohnt and I didn't have the best relationship. Ultimately, though, what spurred me to check on the sound was this: I was tired of being so afraid. I'd been wearing it like a shock collar since the Killer put me in the hospital, and I could already feel the conditioning settle in. Don't take chances. Stay in your routine. Don't step out of line, and you won't bring any more bad on yourself.

I glanced around. Theadora was still busy in the Apothecary display window down the block and across the street, though she looked far away and pieced-up through the falling snow. The Fortune Café was three blocks ahead, the streets mostly well-lit. A rusty Ford pickup with a snowplow wedge mounted on the front drove past, the snow muffling the engine's rattle. The driver honked a greeting at Mrs. Berns and me. I held up a hand. He kept driving.

I sighed. It felt like now or never: confront my fear or forever wear the yoke. If the boogey man was down the alley, I could yell and Mrs. Berns would have someone here in two minutes. If it was an injured animal, I could carry it back to my car and drive it to the emergency vet. If it was a scared child, or worse, an injured one, I was a monster for even debating this long.

"I'm going in," I said. "You wait here."

I held my hands loose at my sides like I'd learned in a recent self-defense class and strode resolutely down the alley.

And right into the devil's paw.


"Hey, whatchu doin' walking down alleys? Didn't your mama warn you?"

My heart was pounding on the back of my throat, looking for escape. Even in the dim light, I could see that the brute was younger than me, maybe early twenties, an ogre of a man with a heavy forehead and eyes that squinted under the weight of it. His jean jacket was far too light for the weather, even with the hoodie underneath. I sensed another person behind me, certainly male. I couldn't see him, knew he was blocking my escape, but I was too scared to turn away from the ogre. The man behind me made a sound, a replica of the mewling that had drawn me into the alley in the first place.

"He breathes like that when he gets tweaked. Says he can't hear it himself, but I tell him he sounds just like a damn trapped kitten." He reached forward and plucked my hat off my head and shoved it onto his. "And that's exactly what I feel like. This weather is inhumane, you got that? It's like someone left the goddamn freezer door open in this state."

White spots floated across my eyes. I wanted to look at who was behind me but couldn't drag my eyes off the immediate threat. I prayed fervently that Mrs. Berns wouldn't follow me down here, that she would instead intuit I needed help and take off for the police station. I considered yelling, but I knew she'd come if I did, and the only thing that would make this situation worse was if there were two of us stuck in it.

The ogre stared me down. I knew if there'd been more light, his flat black shark eyes would have just reflected it back at me. I could barely see around his hulking form, the back wall of the post office on one side of him, the three-story wall of an apartment building on the other. Behind him was the alley leading to the opposite street, a street light flickering at the end through the deepening snow, forty eternal feet away.

"How 'bout those mittens, baby? They look like they'd be mighty warm to slide into."

Behind me, the soft animal cry took on a wheezing quality that made my stomach tighten. I was aware of each hair on my head.

I slipped off my mittens, every nerve in my body keening. I needed to escape. The guy behind me might be small enough to run through, but I couldn't seem to pull my eyes off the beast I was facing. My best bet was to run through the ogre, but I'd have only one chance. I held the mittens out, visibly trembling. As he reached forward, I pretended to drop them. He bent down, and I charged to his right. I made it all of two feet before the person behind jumped onto my back and crashed us both into the icy ground.

The fall knocked the wind out of me and twisted the newly healed knife wound in my right arm. The pain burned all the way to my teeth. I so wanted to play possum until all this went away, until the bad guys were gone and I was back safe on a well-lit street, but I didn't have that luxury. The man who'd dropped me rolled off, and I gasped for breath, taking stock of my ribs and wrists, feeling for breaks. The ogre toed me with his boot.

"Where were you going, baby? Doncha know there's nothing to see around here? This place is about as interesting as bread. Everyone looks the same, nothin' to do."

I winced as I pulled myself into a sitting position. In a different life, I might have agreed with his assessment. I tried out my voice, not liking how small it sounded. "What are you doing here if you dislike it so much?"

"She talks!" said the ogre. "You hear that, Ray? She's got a voice."

My back to an apartment dumpster, I finally risked a look at the ogre's partner, Ray. He was lean and hungry-looking, also underdressed for the weather, with a lick of a tattoo showing on his neck. Where the big one looked like he was from eastern European or Russian stock, Ray appeared Hispanic. Rather than answer, he kept glancing furtively down the alleyway behind him then over the other guy's shoulder, as if expecting someone. Jumping on me had ramped up his baby-animal noises, and he seemed ready to crawl out of his own skin.

I pushed myself to my feet. My hands were ice-scraped from trying to brace my fall, and likely my knees were as well, but I was alive. From this angle, I noticed the crowbar and duffle bag at the ogre's feet, and I added that to what I knew. That meant I now had three bits of knowledge, the other two being that the man who had pounced on me was quick and that running clearly wasn't going to work. Which left talking. Mrs. Berns had surely gone for help, right? I just needed to keep them from hurting me until the police showed up. It was a long, desperate shot, which felt just about right.

I rubbed at the palms of my hands, checking for ice shards and gravel. "I have plenty of other hats and mittens. I could bring you some if you like."

Ray's fidgety glance stopped on me for a moment, then kept traveling.

The ogre tried to stretch one of my mittens over his meaty paw. It covered three fingers. "Naw, baby, I don't think your winter gear is worth crap. What else you got that might be worth somethin'? You got a purse? Why don't no ladies here carry purses?"

It was true. When the temperature dropped, Minnesota women tend to store everything close to their body. It just made sense. My money was housed in the interior pocket of my down jacket, along with peppermint lip balm, keys, and three pieces of cinnamon gum. I could live without any of it.

I held up my cold hands. "I've got about thirty bucks. You're welcome to it. It's inside my pocket."

Excerpted from JANUARY THAW by jess lourey. Copyright © 2014 Jess Lourey. Excerpted by permission of Llewellyn Worldwide Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Jessica (Jess) Loureyis best known for her critically-acclaimed Murder-by-Month mysteries, which have earned multiple starred reviews from Library JournalandBooklist,the latter calling her writing "a splendid mix of humor and suspense." A tenured professor of creative writing and sociology, Jess lives in Minneapolis with her family. Salem's Cipher,the first book in her thrilling Witch Hunt series, hits stores September 2016. You can find out more atwww.JessicaLourey.com.

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January Thaw 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
rhonda1111RL More than 1 year ago
5 STARS I really like and care about Mira James. Jess Lourey did a good job of making the characters feel real. I did not want to put the book down. I did not realize that I had read a previous book featuring Mira two years ago.(My Memory I used to remember all the books I read.) The book starts strong and keeps you interested and wanting to know more about the different characters and their relationships to each other. Mira James works at the library, newspaper and working to become a detective. She cares about the people in her small town of Battle Creek, MN. She has a bad habit of finding a dead body at least once per month. She is house sitting for a friend. Mira and her friend get accosted in an alley. Before anything bad happens they are rescued by Maurice a black man that has come in the library a lot the past week. He knows the two men who have gang tattoos. The book has a lot of drama, action, crimes as Mira tries to figure out how and who are doing things in town. Plus she has a case to look into and lots of questions she wants the answer too. Mira has two good friends who are senior citizens that help her get into trouble. They bring some humor along with finding out information to help her solve the problems and questions she has. I would love to go back and read all the books in the series sometime. I want to read more of Jess Lourey books in the future. I was given this ebook to read and asked to give honest review of it when finished by NetGalley and Midnight Ink. One source says this book comes out in Aug and three more show Jan. 8, 2014. Midnight Ink publisher.