She would have killed for a bestseller--but someone beat her to it...
Professor of Passion, the smutty new romance from Mildred Twiller--a.k.a. Azalea Twilight--isn't the kind of book Claire Malloy likes to hock at her bookstore, but Claire agrees to host a book party for her friend's trashy tale. As torrid as the novel is, it's nothing compared to the evening. After the party, poor Mildred is found dead in her home--stranged with a tightly knotted silk scarf. Now it's up to Clair to find Mildred's killer, and it won't be easy--the two-bit author had offended nearly every faculty member she worked with at nearby Faber College. But who could have hated Mildred with such smoldering passion?
Find out in Joan Hess' first Claire Malloy mystery novel Strangled Prose.
About the Author
JOAN HESS is the author of both the Claire Malloy and the Maggody mystery series. She is a winner of the American Mystery Award, a member of Sisters in Crime, and a former president of the American Crime Writers League. She lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Read an Excerpt
ONEThere is no place for a body in the little office at the back of my bookstore--not even mine. With a concerted effort and a great deal of grunting and shoving, I had managed to squeeze in a small wooden desk, two chairs, and a dented filing cabinet with two drawers. That left very little floor space, but it did give me a place to pretend to do the necessary managerial duties. I love books; I hate bookkeeping--except in a whimsical sense.The Book Depot is in a renovated train depot; hence, the uninspired but accurate name. The red brick building was the focal point of the town until the late 1940s, when the last passenger train rumbled into the sunset. After that it was used by the railway agents who dealt with occasional freight trains. Those, too, finally found another route, and the building was abandoned.A white-haired elf named Grimaldi bought the building when the final train withered on the track. He spent whatmoney he had for remodeling, then ordered the inventory, put up his sign, and promptly fell dead with a stroke. Mrs. Grimaldi sold me the store on her way to Florida.Now it is mine, and like a marriage, the relationship is not dependable. But I love the musty corners, the flaking plaster, and the memories of a happier time. I have always known that I ought to own a bookstore, if only to have access to a satisfactory source of books. The cramped office goes with the job; it must have provided some comfort to the shivering agent, since the boiler rarely did. The boiler is still with me, but I have contemplated a divorce.I was sitting in said office, surrounded by ledgers and stacks of invoices as I tried to arrive at a quarterly tax estimate that would fall somewhere between despair and credibility. When the bell above the front door tinkled, I abandoned the grim figures and went to the front of the store.Mildred Twiller hesitated in the doorway, twisting a bit of Irish lace in her hand. "Claire, I need to speak to you--if you're not too busy?" Her voice tinkled like the bell above her head, delicate yet impossible to ignore.I studied her nervously. Mildred reminds me of a snowman made of marshmallows, superficially soft but with a care of ice. She is short and sweet, with small, round eyes and a ladylike mouth carefully outlined in red. Two patches of pink had been brushed onto her alabaster cheeks. She was wearing a fluttery linen dress that murmured money to those who listened to such things, a large-brimmed hat, and her signature, a collection of bright silk scarves. She looked as if she were a silver-haired gypsy with a hefty income."Wonderful," I said, despising my weakness for the woman. She and I are from different worlds, but I like her. Ibrushed a layer of dust off my faded jeans and said, "Come on back to the office and we'll have coffee while we talk.""I really don't want to interrupt you," she said in a self-deprecatory voice. "You must be terribly busy. I simply wanted to let you know that my newest book will be out in a few weeks." She resisted an urge to pirouette, but I could see the inner struggle."No, I can use a break, Mildred. The coffee is already made. Come on back and sit down for a minute."We went to the office. Mildred looked at the chair uneasily, no doubt wondering if there was a tactful way to dust it with her handkerchief. I poured the coffee, handed her a mug, and perched on the corner of the desk. Like Macbeth, I sensed trouble."I was hoping you might have a little reception when the book arrives," Mildred chirped. Her eyes bored into me in silent command. "I'll supply the refreshments, naturally, and the invitations. I simply don't think it quite nice for me to have a party honoring me. People might think I was being a teensy boastful."I pretended to consider it for a minute, then shook my head in a show of regret, which I felt not one little bit. "I'd love to host the reception, Mildred, but I really don't have enough room for a horde of people. Why don't you have the reception on campus? That way, no one will have to be left out, and--""I've always felt it vital to help my friends," Mildred cut in, as if I hadn't been so rude as to contradict her plan. "It's clear to Douglas and me that your little store isn't doing very well these days. We feel responsible for you, dear, and I am willing to limit my guest list to allow for the available space in order to help you.""How will your reception help me?" I said in areasonable voice. Not that Mildred had ever been swayed by reason. In her unassuming way, the woman could withstand a hurricane or an earthquake. I told myself that I had better start thinking about rearranging the book racks in the front of the store."Everyone will attend the reception. A bookstore must have customers, and this will give people a chance to see how charming the Book Depot is. It will help quite a bit.""I don't handle romance fiction," I said, in what I knew was a futile attempt to avert the inevitable. Custer waving at the Indians. Ahab reading a blubber recipe. "Your fans won't find much to interest them here. Now, the bookstore at the mall carries a lot of romance books, and they might be willing to--""Nonsense. My fans read other genres. Besides, Douglas will wish to invite many of the Farber faculty members. My book is entitled Professor of Passion, which will appeal to them. It takes place in a college setting.""I'm sure it's quite wonderful, Mildred, but I don't mink--""A Sunday afternoon would be preferable," she said. She dug through her leather purse and pulled out an appointment book. After glancing through it, she beamed at me. "Yes, November tenth would seem the most likely choice for the autograph party. From two to four, with champagne and a few things to eat.""November tenth," I repeated numbly, "with champagne and autographs. What shall I do, Mildred?""Not a teensy thing. I'll have the caterer drop by in the next week or two to study the possibilities. All you'll need to do is decide where you want the various tables to be placed. I will need a certain amount of space to display and autograph my book.""Are you sure it'll be out on schedule? I'd hate to plan--""My editor has assured me that the book will be available as scheduled, Claire." Mildred stood up and adjusted her hat to a rakish angle. "Just think of it as an opening night on Broadway."Leaving me to ponder the image, Mildred Twiller swept out of the office. Seconds later, the bell tinkled and I was alone again. I leaned back in the chair to study the cracks in the ceiling. Where had I lost control of the situation with Mildred?The problem is that the woman has the continuity of a schizophrenic. On one hand, Mildred is a rotund little grandmother who exudes the aroma of talcum powder and violets. But when she slips into the role of Azalea Twilight, a successful romance writer whose descriptive scenes leave even the most ardent pornographiles speechless with admiration, the woman grows taller. Her eyes begin to snap, her voice to crackle, and her vocabulary to pop with self-assurance. She's as irresistible as one of her virginal heroines.After a few scowls at the ceiling, I dove back into the ledger to see if the figures had improved in my absence. My fairy godmother had failed to work on them, and they still looked a shade gaunt. Although my income rarely delights my accountant, my daughter, Caron, and I manage to manage. I am incredibly happy with the store, moderately happy with my drafty old apartment, and somewhat happy with Caron--when she's behaving like a human being rather than a pubescent tragedy. Fourteen is a difficult age. Caron has turned it into a well-staged melodrama.At this point, I almost allowed myself to hunt up the latest adolescent psychology book to see if Caron's symptomsmight be terminal. But indulging in a book is my worst fault, since I have been known not to surface for hours. With a martyred sigh, I returned to the account.The bell tinkled again. I crammed the ledger in a drawer, ran a hand through my hair, and went to the front of the store, wondering if Mildred's caterer had arrived to rip out my shelves and put in a champagne fountain.Britton Blake was studying the display of the current bestsellers. His bearded chin bobbled wisely and his hands were entwined behind his back. His arms formed a perfect vee, as in valiant, versifier, or vasectomy. All virtues, according to one's perspective.He swung around to smile at me, confident that the leather patches were affixed firmly to the elbows of his tweed jacket and that his pipe would not tumble out of his pocket to disgrace him. It was one of my secret dreams."Claire, darling." He came at me, lips puckered hopefully.I retreated down the aisle. "Hello, Britton. Browsing or buying?""If only your heart were for sale ..." he began, in his most pedantic tone. "Dear Claire, 'she will show us her shoulder, her bosom, her face; but what the heart's like, we must guess.' Earl of Lytton, 1831-1891.""Don't get your hopes up about the 'bosom' bit," I retorted, still edging backward. "My accountant assures me that the IRS will slap a lien on said bosom if I don't send in a quarterly estimate. So, feel free to browse, and leave the money on the counter if you find anything to buy--for a change."Now the maligned schoolboy, Britton put his hand on his heart. "I came by with the most honorable of intentions. The student film society is showing a delightful littleBergman film Sunday evening, and I thought we might have a bite of supper afterward.""In the corner bistro? Farberville rolls up the sidewalk at ten o'clock, earlier when the Farber students have been exposed to something as risqué as a foreign film. Farberville can deal with X-rated movies, but films--ha!""Your logic is unassailable, as always. Since there is no bistro for a late supper, we can retire to my lodgings for a nibble or two." His leer was laden with suggestion.Britton is certainly not the worst available man in town. He's divorced, but he doesn't have a flock of surly children who teethed on Cinderella's stepmother, nor does he bother with the nubile sorority girls. Although he spews a lot of nonsense, he's at least gentlemanly in his forthright and lecherous quest. Once in a while, my animal instincts have overcome my reluctance, and we've indulged in a bit of amorous frivolity.To my regret, Britton takes the whole thing much more seriously than I do. I have the store, my daughter, and a reasonable future as a single woman. I tried men once. It was not an untenable arrangement, but when Carlton terminated the relationship in a car wreck, I vowed not to find a replacement. Prose filled the gap admirably. Britton refuses to believe me."Well?" He was pursuing me down the aisle, graphically as well as metaphorically. No doubt he was hearing an organ drone the familiar processional march."A Bergman film might serve to erase the scars," I admitted. I allowed him to tickle my cheek with his well-clipped beard, then distracted him with the story of Azalea Tiwilight's newest literary accomplishment."Professor of Passion? Good God, the woman should be locked in a library for the next decade to discover theessential truth of literature!" Britton's normally blue eyes were now circles of slate. "Have you actually read any of her--and I use the word in the loosest sense--work?"We went into the office. After I handed him coffee, I sat down behind the desk. "I did read a couple, since Caron has every last one of them. What amazes me is that sweet little Mildred Twiller has such unbelievable fantasies. I don't believe people can actually do some of the contortions she describes in loving detail, much less enjoy it at the same time. She knows more erogenous zones than I do time zones.""The underlying question is: Can you by any stretch of the imagination see Mildred and Douglas engaged in her pet erotica? Even in the name of literary research, I fail to find Mildred quite that inspirational.""Under Mildred's floppy hat lies one of the most creative brains in the category fiction market. She has told me mat when nearing one of her 'sensual scenes,' she opens a bottle of wine, surrounds her typewriter with candles and roses, and just lets herself flow with the sexual tide. The image boggles the mind."Britton gave me an innocent smile. "Why don't we try out some of Mildred's ideas, simply to prove the impossibility of having one's tongue in more than two or three places at the same time? Then, if we arrive at any conclusions, I can publish a scholarly article refuting her more descriptive passages.""I can see the article in Literary Dialogue," I said, nodding soberly. "You could title it 'An Exploration of the Erotic Premise of Anatomically Improbable Coitus in the Later Works of Azalea Twilight.'"Britton glanced at his watch, then stood up and realigned the creases in his pants. "As distasteful as it seems, mygraduate seminar on Elizabethan poetry requires my immediate attention. Shall we begin the research this evening? I'll stock up on aphrodisiacs, in case you find yourself unable to meet the challenge of behaving like Azalea's giddy heroines.""Bergman is okay, but don't buy any powdered rhinoceros horns for me. Caron is having Inez over to study, and I dare not leave them alone for more than a few hours.""Have they been reading Azalea Twilight's how-to manuals?""Manically, night and day. Between the two of them, they have two complete sets. They have memorized some of the more significant passages and sit around the living room quoting to each other. It unsettles me, at the very least."Britton made a few more lazy attempts to corner me, then left to take out his frustrations on the hapless graduate students waiting in the English building. I stood in the doorway and watched him walk the few blocks up the hill to the campus. When he was out of sight, I shifted my attention to the Farber students crowding the sidewalk in front of my bookstore.I reminded myself sternly that more than fifteen years had slithered by since I was an undergraduate. Although at thirty-eight one is supposed to embrace more conservative ideals, I rather wish the current students might show some faint flicker of spirit. It is only an idle dream. We had the Vietnam war to bring us together, they have only the threat of unemployment. The nightmare of not being able to afford designer clothes and designer houses keeps them in line. Farber students protest the dearth of fall interviews with prospective employers. Nuclear bombs and third-world famine leave them cold.Enough of the soapbox. Of the six thousand students atFarber, maybe one will turn out to be a leader of the underprivileged, a spokesman for equality, a champion of civil rights. After all, they can't all find jobs as advertising executives and philosophy instructors. Farber is a provincial liberal arts college; the recruiters have been known to ignore it during lean years.I spotted a familiar figure jogging down the hill, holding a steady path in the middle of the sidewalk, despite the crowd. Nary a student would dare impede the progress of Douglas Twiller, M.A., Ph.D., holder of the Thurber Farber Chair of Literature, etc., etc. Not to mention husband of Azalea Twilight, which he actually didn't mention too often. Of course, his wife's books pulled in well over a hundred grand a year, by no means literary peanuts. They paid for the Mercedes, the servants, the mansion to keep the servants busy, and Douglas Twiller's designer jogging shoes. It would be churlish to belittle the typewriter that lays the golden egg.Douglas swung into the store without losing a beat. Bouncing from foot to foot like a child in need of a potty, he gave me a broad wink. "Hi, Claire."I regarded him with the same wariness. I do his wife. Douglas is a virile specimen for his fifty-odd years. He has a trim beard, modestly long hair flecked with gray, a hard body, and a boyish grin. Quite a combination for an English professor, as his distaff students are inclined to giggle in the sanctity of the sorority houses. He insists on teaching at least one undergraduate course every semester, claiming that it helps him keep his teaching skills honed. Campus gossip attributes other motives."Hello, Douglas. Would you please stop hopping about like that? It ages me to see all that perfectly good energy being wasted.""I can think of other ways to expend energy, Claire.""I'm sure you can; please do not elaborate on the theme." I crossed my arms and waited.His feet came to a reluctant halt. "Did Mildred come by this morning? She was eager. to speak to you.""Yes, she did. I think it's a truly wretched idea, but she did not agree. The Book Depot does not cater to literary voyeurs, and I have no desire to have my store filled with drooling--""Now, now, Claire." Douglas waggled a manicured finger at me. "Mildred and I consider you one of our dearest friends. Mildred is determined to help you, at whatever cost to her personally. I hope you won't do something that might cause her pain."The man had unerring aim. I made a face and said, "I suppose not, Douglas. But this is the only time the Book Depot is going to engage in such a travesty. Make that clear to Mildred.""To Mildred, yes. To Azalea Twilight, who knows?" He started the sneakers pounding, gave me a quick wink, and jogged out the door. A huddle of students leaped out of his way as he started back up the hill toward the campus. The Douglas Twillers of the world teach classes in sweat suits, drink jug wine at student parties, and generally break every written and unwritten rule of conduct. But, as their deans know very well, they do publish often in prestigious journals. And that's what matters.The students came into the store, and I forgot about the reception as I helped them find the books on their starchy, crisp reading lists. Douglas, Britton, and several other of the English faculty feel some misguided obligation to take care of their departed colleague's widow, even after eight years. I would object--if I had a more reliable source ofincome. But you can't buy wine with food stamps, so I accept the business as graciously as possible.I dealt with the students, even managing to sell one of them a book that was not on his reading list. A triumph, I crowed silently as I returned to the ledger.At seven o'clock, I closed the store and walked up the hill. Caron and I have the top floor of an old house that sits across the street from Farber College's most famous landmark, Farber Hall. Although the health inspector condemns it on a semiannual basis, it still houses the English department and two floors of damp, cold classrooms. Carlton's office was on the fourth floor, and he used to joke about the building collapsing under his feet. He should have worried a little more about chicken trucks and icy pavement.I checked the mail and eased open the front door. The ground floor was inhabited by yet another member of the English faculty. I had had enough contact with the group for the day, but apparently the gods were having a dull time on Olympus."Claire!"I stopped, one foot dangling above the step, and turned around reluctantly to meet two militant eyes under a cap of black, cropped hair. She wore a khaki army jacket, baggy pants, and a T-shirt with a message about the role of men in today's society. It was obscene."What's up, Maggie?" I asked."Is it true?" If words had physical substance, hers would have splintered into a thousand shards."Is what true, Maggie?""Is it true that the Book Depot is sponsoring a reception for Azalea Twilight's newest bit of sexist garbage?""In a manner of speaking, yes. Mildred didn't phrase it quite like that, however."Maggie's nose turned red and she began to huff. When it became clear that she was incapable of verbalizing her displeasure, I added, "If you're planning to ultimately blow the house down, I'd appreciate a chance to move out a few of my cherished possessions, and perhaps my daughter."Maggie Holland is the president of the Farber Women's Organization, which periodically issues statements condemning whatever offends them. They picket once in a while, their beety faces shining with indignation and their arms locked in sisterhood. I approve of their sentiments, although they have been known to be a shade tedious in their demands. I don't want to play football, nor do I feel equality extends to urinals in the ladies' room.At last Maggie found her voice. "I must say that I am appalled at you, Claire Malloy! You are aware that romance fiction proliferates the sexist tenet that a woman's single goal in life is to attach herself like a leech to some arrogant bastard who--""I'm doing a favor for Mildred," I said firmly "If you don't approve of the book, make your statement clear by not attending the reception. Stay home and sulk. Read a pamphlet. Refuse to wash the dishes for the next month."Maggie's mouth tightened, and her fingers dug into the doorjamb until I could almost feel them. "As leader of the FWO, I cannot overlook this, Claire. We have a moral obligation to eradicate this vile literatune.""I'm not sure the FWO has that kind of impact on the New York publishing houses, Maggie," I said. I started back up the stairs, tired of the whole thing."We're going to demonstrate!" Maggie yelped."So demonstrate!" I yelped back, without stopping. Iwent upstairs, unlocked the door, then slammed it several times and stomped across the living room. Maybe Maggie's light fixture will fall on her head, I hissed to myself. I barely stopped myself from slamming the refrigerator door closed.Caron's head popped up from behind it. Waving a half-eaten carrot at me, she said, "Mother, if you engage in coitus interruptus, are you still technically a virgin?"And that was only the beginning.Copyright © 1986 by Joan Hess.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
When someone first sees the book, 'Strangled Prose' they will probably think, 'Oh, just another romance novel.' Don't judge a book by its cover applies to this book. In my opinion, Joan Hess has written an exciting book and it involves a crime of passion. Claire Malloy owns a small bookstore in a university town. Of her many friends, one happens to be an author of romance books and her name is Mildred. Mildred has written a new book and insists Claire hosts a book signing for her at her bookstore. Claire does not approve of romance novels but is finally pressured into agreeing to Mildred's request partly because of Mildred¿s husband. Mildred's book is titled 'Professor of Passion' and what a book it is¿Mildred has dug up all the dirt about the professors at the university and also about Claire's late husband. The entire community is offended when they see the book. It seems as if Mildred has gone too far. She ends up murdered. During the investigation of her death some very interesting information is discovered including the fact that she is not the true author of the book. Her husband, who is a professor at the university, is the one responsible for all the dirty details that have been published.
One of my favorite authors, she never disappoints!
This was a quick read with lots of humor. Things a lot of people identify in their everyday life. However, I hate to sound like a snob here but I have never seen so many typos in any other ebook to date. Now I have read maybe only 100 ebooks and I also have not yet been in to look at the hardcover to see if the same is true in it. I just am in a field that makes me notice such things. It was so bad it took away from the rhythm of the story.
I've just read Joan Hess's Strangled Prose. This is not only her first novel, but her first Claire Malloy mystery. It's been a few years since I've read Joan Hess's work, and I really wanted to get back into her series. Boy, was I glad I did. This book is nicely written, very easy to read and a nice addition to your cozy mystery library. The plot is simple, yet very original. A local romance novelist, having just written her latest love feast, is strangled in her home, after it is revealed that the plot of her latest book is actually a poorly concealed story that deals with many of the local scandals in the college town of the book's setting. The college town setting of Claire Malloy's world is very neatly constructed, and I enjoyed it. I definately want to return and meet the other quirky, yet likeable characters. Even our amature detective has an interesting back story, which makes her one of the many suspects in the murder. A few nice twists along the way, make this an enjoyable mystery. The solution, though probably not shocking, is simple and makes perfect sense. In fact, I didn't guess the answer, altough at one point I did suspect the actual killer, but later changed my answer. I enjoy being fooled, but the bottom line for me in any mystery is that the ending must make sense, and Joan Hess pulls this off quite nicely. The book is very cliche, but that's what I enjoyed about it. The combination of standard mystery story props, sprinkled with her own originality, makes this book a pleausre to read. It's only 184 pages, and a quick read, but well worth it. The only complaint would be that it goes by so fast, but what a nice ride it is. Thank goodness there's plenty more books where this came from. And for a very different twist on the cozy mystery, don't forget to check out Joan Hess's Arly Hanks novels.