Sherry is off on her honeymoon when Chief Harper comes to Cora Felton, asking her to solve a crossword puzzle found on the body of Old Man Overmeyer. Small problem. Cora is the Milli Vanilli of cruciverbalists. Her niece, Sherry, writes the crossword puzzle column for her.
Cora pokes into Overmeyer's death, hoping to prove he died of natural causes. She learns the cranky hermit was the sole surviving member of a forty-year-old stock pooling agreement, and before she can say "capital gain," the town is full of heirs. Complicating things is Sherry's ex-husband, Dennis, who is playing detective in the hopes of impressing his ex-wife. With Sherry out of town, her restraining order against him is moot, and he is taking full advantage of the fact.
With Dead Man's Puzzle, Parnell Hall delivers another stellar, puzzle-packed entry in his entertaining Puzzle Lady series.
About the Author
Parnell Hall is the co-author of the New York Times bestselling Teddy Fay thrillers. He is the author of the Puzzle Lady mysteries, the Stanley Hastings private eye novels, and the Steve Winslow courtroom thrillers. He is a Shamus Award winner, and has been nominated for the Edgar and the Lefty. He lives in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
Dead Man's Puzzle
A Puzzle Lady Mystery
By Parnell Hall
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2009 Parnell Hall
All rights reserved.
"I'll be fine."
Cora Felton patted her niece's hands and smiled brightly, the trademark Puzzle Lady smile that graced her nationally syndicated crossword puzzle column.
"I know you will," Sherry said. She looked cute as a button in a fossil- colored safari shirt and matching convertible pants, the legs of which zipped off to make shorts. A floppy sun hat and mesh hiking boots completed the picture. "I just want to make sure you've got everything straight."
"You told me before."
"You were watching a soap opera."
"I was multitasking. Good practice. Sharpens the brainpower."
"As I was saying. It's important to get it straight."
"Didn't they call your plane?" Cora said.
"No, they didn't call our plane. Or you wouldn't be here. We haven't gone through security yet."
"Now, pay attention."
Cora sighed. "Couldn't you have told me this on the way?"
"You were driving."
"I didn't want you to drive off the road."
"You think I can't drive and talk?"
"I know you can drive and talk. Drive and listen is another matter."
"I see what you're doing. You're trying to be such a pain I won't miss you."
"When you get back to the house and don't know what to do, you'll be glad we had this little talk."
Sherry Carter and Aaron Grant were leaving on their honeymoon. After a long and fitful courtship, they had finally tied the knot. Cora always knew they would; still, it had been touch and go, what with Sherry's abusive ex- husband, Dennis Pride, always poking around and Aaron's former girlfriend Becky Baldwin on hand. It had happened at last, and the young couple were off to Africa to track the migration of the wildebeest. Cora shuddered at the thought. She wasn't entirely sure what a wildebeest was, but she doubted there was a man in the world attractive enough to induce her to track one.
"The Puzzle Lady columns for the next two weeks are ready to go. Each set is paper-clipped together with a Post-it with the date." Sherry cocked her head like a schoolteacher. "Is that the date the puzzle appears in the paper?"
"No!" Sherry cried in exasperation. "It is the date you are to fax the puzzle. And where is the number you are to fax the puzzle to?"
"I may have missed one or two things," Cora admitted.
"It's on the cover sheet you're faxing. Each fax you send out consists of three pages. The cover sheet. The puzzle. And the solution. You put them in the fax machine how?"
"I take the paper clip off."
"But in what direction?"
"I put them in the top, they come out the bottom."
"Isn't that right?"
"What's the direction of the pages when you put them in?"
"Does it matter? If they're upside down, they can just turn them around."
"Not top and bottom. Front and back. The writing side faces away from you. The blank side faces toward you."
"Then how do I read the phone number?"
Aaron came back from checking the departure board. The young reporter looked happy. Whether it was from not having a deadline for two weeks or from marrying her niece, Cora wasn't sure. Aaron wore a similar outfit, carried a backpack.
"Is the plane on time?" Sherry asked.
"Safari, so good," Aaron deadpanned.
"Oh, God, is it too late to get out of marrying this guy?"
"You already did."
"The plane's on time," Aaron said. "We gotta go."
"You kids run along now," Cora said. "I'll be fine."
"What do you do if you have to reach me?" Sherry said.
"In case of emergency."
"In case of emergency, someone would find you."
"In an emergency, I don't want someone spending half a day finding me. I have an international cell phone."
"The number's on my desk. With the rest of the instructions."
"See," Cora said. "You're giving me a hard time, and all this is written down."
"If you need me, call me. If you don't get me, leave a message on my voice mail."
"Unless we're out of range," Aaron said. "These things can be out of range."
"In which case you e-mail me," Sherry said.
"You have e-mail?"
"See? You weren't listening at all. You leave my e-mail closed. You leave your e-mail open. You e-mail me here, I pick it up there."
Cora frowned. "You have the same account there?"
"It's not that I have an account there. It's that I can pick it up there."
"At Hotmail dot com."
"Sounds like a porn site."
"You can e-mail me, and when I get it, I can either call you or e-mail you back."
"Just have a good time."
Cora smiled. She supposed they would.
So would she. Despite. It was sweet of Sherry to worry, but Cora was a big girl. She could take care of herself. After all, it was only for two weeks.
What could possibly go wrong?CHAPTER 2
Cora Felton slammed the red Toyota into a turn. Leaves shot out from under the wheel. The car skidded slightly, gripped pavement, rocketed down the road. Up ahead, sun filtering through the trees glinted off the tan Lexus as it flashed around the curve out of sight. Cora scowled, ascribed the power of the procreative process to the sun, the trees, and the car. She flipped down the visor, stomped on the accelerator, and hunched over the wheel, preparing to negotiate the tricky S-turn, which seemed to lose a new guard post every year as some unsuspecting driver was ambushed by an icy patch from the first early frost. She handled the S-turn by driving straight through, no problem, unless someone happened to be coming in the other lane. Today no one was. Cora shot through, gained a couple of seconds on her quarry.
Not enough. The Lexus was still a hundred yards away and coming up on Dead Man's Curve. Not that anyone had died there, that was just Cora's nickname for it. The turn wasn't hard to negotiate, but it was right before the light. The traffic light that held her fate in the balance. Would it stop the Lexus? Or would it let the Lexus go and stop her? And if it let the Lexus go, would it still be in sight? Or would it be a coin flip which way it had gone? A three-sided coin, actually — right, left, or straight ahead?
As Cora swept through the curve, first the road to the left and then the road straight ahead came into her field of vision. No car. The Lexus had gone right.
The light was red. A New York City girl born and bred, Cora Felton had a New York license, but she seemed to recall the Connecticut right-on-red rule had something to do with coming to a complete stop and making sure there was no traffic before turning. In fact, Dale Harper, the Bakerhaven chief of police, had reminded her of that on at least one occasion.
Cora made the turn on two wheels, didn't signal, and cut off a bus. Which wasn't that easy to do in Connecticut. In New York Cora cut off buses all the time. Here it was quite an accomplishment. You had to go out of your way to find one.
Up ahead, the Lexus caught the traffic light just as it was changing.
Cora snorted. Wouldn't you know it. The guy doesn't even know he's being followed and blunders into the perfect escape.
Cora was pretty sure there was no straight-ahead-on-red rule in Connecticut. On the other hand, there was nothing coming in either direction. No reason to stop except for a useless formality designed to serve a purpose at a time of high traffic. This was not that time. The light was serving no purpose whatsoever but to make her lose her quarry.
Cora gunned it through the light, saw no one, offended no one, and hurtled down the road.
The Lexus, which must have been doing a hundred, or at least seemed that way, was heading for another S-curve. Cora stomped on the gas.
A car pulled out of a side road. Cora saw it in the rearview mirror. Paid it no mind. Whoever it was, it wasn't going to keep her from her task. Cora screeched into the S-curve, left it in the dust.
The Lexus was turning right, heading for the mall. That was fine by Cora. It would be good following him through the mall. Give her a chance to hone her skills. If he turned into the mall, she had him.
Cora was gaining ground, but so was the car behind her. That made no sense. Why should anyone be trying to keep up with —
That wasn't just any car. It was a police car. A cruiser with a bubble on top. The lights weren't on. Maybe it didn't want her.
Despite the fact Cora was doing seventy, the police car was closing the distance. Just as the Lexus was slowing and signaling a turn.
Cora was caught like a rat in a trap. About to be squished between the cops and her quarry.
And the cop was Chief Harper.
Well, that sealed it. She'd never live it down. There was only one thing to do.
Cora spun the wheel, fishtailed into the mall parking lot, and screeched to a stop in the parking space that miraculously opened up in front of her.
Her Toyota was still rocking when Chief Harper pulled up behind her.CHAPTER 3
Cora got out of the car, faced a rather exasperated-looking Chief Harper. "All right," she said, "you got me."
"Didn't you see me behind you?"
"That was you?"
"Yes, that was me. Why didn't you stop?"
"Why didn't you use your siren?"
"I don't use the siren unless I'm making an arrest."
"You're not arresting me?"
"For whatever you're not arresting me for."
"I'm not arresting you for anything."
"I guess that covers it."
Chief Harper frowned, peered at her suspiciously. "You sound like a woman with a guilty conscience."
"Do you know how many times I've been married? Probably not. I lose track myself. Anyway, it's a lot. So I'm used to a guilty conscience. It's practically my default position."
Harper put up his hands. "Please. No wordplay. Which was great, by the way. Why weren't you in that movie?"
"The crossword puzzle movie. Wordplay. With Will Shortz."
"Why aren't you in it?"
Cora wasn't in the movie because she'd ducked interviews, failed to return phone calls, and not shown up to film. She was afraid her crossword puzzle expertise, which was nonexistent, would be exposed in such a movie. "Just bad luck, Chief. Well, if there's nothing else ..."
"Nothing else? I stopped you, for goodness' sakes."
"You did, and you didn't say why. Instead you talked about everything else under the sun. You're like a gossipy old woman. What do you think that is, Chief? ADD? Early Alzheimer's?"
"Okay, let me start over. I was trying to stop you because I need your help."
"Please tell me it's a murder."
"At least, I don't think so."
"Why do you say that?"
"He died of natural causes."
"Or so it seems?" Cora said hopefully.
"The man was ninety-two."
"Why didn't you say so? He clearly deserved to die. It's a wonder they didn't take him out and shoot him."
"Mr. Overmeyer had cancer of just about everything."
"Was there an autopsy?"
"Why should there be an autopsy?"
"To see if he met with foul play."
"What makes you think he met with foul play?"
"The fact you're asking me about him. You almost ran me off the road to do it."
"I thought you didn't see me back there."
"Let's not quibble. What do you want?"
Chief Harper took out a paper and unfolded it.
Cora's heart sank.
In spidery handwriting and drawn with shaky pen lines was the most loathsome of all possible things known to mortal man.
A crossword puzzle.
An unsolved crossword puzzle.
A crossword puzzle that needed solving.
Cora cursed her lucky stars, which clearly weren't doing their job. After all, what were the odds her niece couldn't go away on her honeymoon for two short weeks without a dead body with a crossword puzzle showing up in Bakerhaven? It was a very small town. And a very short time. What were the odds?
Well, at the moment, a hundred percent. Chief Harper had just dropped one in her lap. Granted, the man wasn't murdered; still, a dead body with a puzzle was her least favorite thing. Odd, since a dead body without a puzzle was her most favorite thing. At least a murdered one. So, take away the puzzle and let the old man turn out to have met with foul play, and it would have been the best of all possible worlds.
Instead, it was a disaster.
Under normal circumstances, Cora would stall Chief Harper, take home a copy of the puzzle, and let Sherry solve it. With Sherry in Africa, it would be hard. Could you text-message a puzzle? Could you solve it over the phone?
Cora knew what Sherry would do. Sherry would scan the puzzle and e-mail it as an attached file. Cora felt proud of herself for knowing that. Unfortunately, she only knew that was what Sherry would do. She didn't know how to do it. Sherry wouldn't be home for a week. Could she stall Chief Harper that long?
"Are you doing it in your head?" Harper asked.
That snapped Cora back to reality. She was most certainly not doing it in her head. "I was trying to concoct a scenario in which this might be of interest to the police. You say the man obviously died of natural causes. Who cares what the crossword puzzle says?"
Harper frowned. "Come on, Cora. That's not like you. There could be lots of reasons."
"Like what? He was an international spy and knows where Jimmy Hoffa was buried? Somehow I tend to doubt it."
"Me too. But solve it anyway."
"All right," Cora said. "I take it there's no rush. I'm a little busy, what with Sherry and Aaron away."
"Ah, the happy couple. How are they? I was beginning to think those two would never tie the knot."
"No kidding. When I was their age, I'd have snapped the guy up like that. Of course, he isn't rich."
"Were all your husbands rich?"
"When I met them." Cora shrugged. "Except Melvin, of course. Melvin just pretended to be. I should have known he was bluffing."
"So, solve this for me, will you?"
"Don't you want to Xerox it first and give me a copy?"
"No need. It's not evidence. There isn't a crime scene. There's no crime. It's just a crossword puzzle."
"That's the problem, Chief. Under those circumstances I can't work up any enthusiasm for it."
"I'm not asking you to blurb it. I'm just asking you to solve it."
"Isn't that what writers call it when they praise each other's work?"
"How should I know?"
"Aren't you a writer?"
"In the loosest sense," Cora said truthfully. She hated to lie. If necessary, she did so with a straight face, but she much preferred to concoct an absolute truth that totally misled the person asking. Calling herself a writer in the loosest sense of the word certainly filled the bill. The sense could not be looser.
Harper was not easily deflected. "Be that as it may. I would like to know what his puzzle says. Mainly so I can cross it off my list of things to do."
"You have a long list, Chief?"
"Is that nice? Business is admittedly slow. Early this morning I was thinking of setting a speed trap."
"No one speeds around here."
"Almost no one. Good thing I didn't look at the speedometer when I was chasing you."
"Is that a threat, Chief? Solve this for me and I won't run you in for speeding?"
Harper was shocked. "Of course not." He shrugged. "Though it's a wonderful idea. So, what do you say?"
"How soon do you need it?"
"I'd like it tonight. You could fax me the answer."
"I'm not good with the fax machine."
"So read it over the phone."
"The whole puzzle?"
"No, just the theme answer. That's all that really matters, right?"
"How the hell should I know? I didn't write the damn thing."
"You're a little touchy, Cora."
"I'm disappointed. You come to me with a dead man and a puzzle. You insist it means nothing, but you torture me with it anyway. It's cruel and unusual punishment. It ought to be illegal. No taunting the Puzzle Lady."
"Very funny. Just have it by tonight."
Cora couldn't believe how quickly it had all gone wrong. Here she was, minding her own business. Well, other people's business, actually, but she was minding it. Honing her detective skills by following random people to the mall. How could she possibly get in trouble doing that?
Only she had.
And now she was faced with having to solve a crossword puzzle.
How could she get out of it?
Harvey Beerbaum.CHAPTER 4
Harvey Beerbaum was beaming all over his face. "I can't begin to thank you."
"You've already begun, Harvey," Cora said. The little cruciverbalist had ambushed Cora in Cushman's Bake Shop, seemed determined to ruin her latte and scone.
"Yes, but to the chief of police. Who always asks you first. Of course, he's known you longer, but still. To recommend me."
Excerpted from Dead Man's Puzzle by Parnell Hall. Copyright © 2009 Parnell Hall. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Bakerhaven, Connecticut police chief Dale Harper asks crossword columnist Cora "the Puzzle Lady" Felton to solve a crossword puzzle found at the death bed of nonagenarian cancer victim Herbert Overmeyer. However Cora is the front as her reticent niece Sherry Carter is the real Puzzle Lady, but she and her husband Aaron Grant are away on their African honeymoon. Needing help, Cora asks her friend corpulent puzzle maker Harvey Beerbaum to assist her. As he solves the puzzle, which seems to offer no help to the death, the autopsy reveals Herbert died from arsenic poisoning. Dale and Cora go to a remote cabin where they find a gun that ties Herbert to a five decade old Alabama convenience store robbery. Sherry's former husband Dennis investigates in an effort to get his ex back, but his mouth on TV may have led to the murder of Herbert's next door neighbor. A third related homicide also occurs. Besides the usual fun crosswords and sudoku puzzles, the latest Puzzle Lady whodunit is one of the strongest entries in recent years as Cora seeks alternative solutions. The story line is action-packed, but driven by feisty Cora who teams up with Dale to investigate the first homicide that has ties to a crime fifty years ago and leads to more murders (complements of Dennis). Readers will enjoy puzzling through the mystery and newcomers will seek to solve previous cases (see THE SUDOKU PUZZLE MURDERS). Harriet Klausner
With Sherry out of town on her honeymoon, Cora will have to be pretty creative to solve the latest crossword related murder spree and keep her secret intact. I was happy to see that the character interactions that had grown beyond stale were revitalized here. I hope that continues with the next book in the series.