Saturday, June 30, 2012

Need a summer read?

DEATH IN A WINE DARK SEA by Lisa King is a fantastic mystery featuring an irrepressible female sleuth who is reluctantly drawn into a murder investigation. When we meet Jean Applequist, it is with these words: "Jean Applequist loved having sex on boats but had never managed it on this particular vessel, even though she'd been aboard several times." With this, King establishes her heroine as wildly different from the bland amateur-sleuth mystery heroines I'm used to, and Jean is a breath of fresh air in an often stale subgenre. Jean is on this particular boat for the wedding of her best friend, Diane, to Martin Wingo, whom Jean despises. When he ends up overboard before the cake is cut, Jean isn't exactly sad to see the end of him, but her loyalty to Diane wins out when Diane begs her to look into the death. Accompanied by the much younger Zeppo, Jean begins poking around, finding no end of viable suspects, and realizing that Martin was even more despicable than she had thought.

The suspects and supporting characters are well-developed and complex, but the real gem is Jean. She may be the first feminist amateur sleuth, though I haven't done research to be sure. While many amateur sleuths blunder about and wander stupidly into danger, needing rescue, Jean knows her own mind and makes her own plans. She is refreshingly smart and resourceful, and she knows when to ask for help. She and Zeppo play off each other beautifully. Zeppo could be a caricature (horny younger man), but in King's capable hands, he is a rich, thoroughly imagined, interesting man. Jean's friend (and self-defense instructor) Roman and the hilariously complex Ivan are other standouts.

King evokes San Francisco through the fog, the food and wine, the scenery. It's a great locale for a mystery, and Jean's day job as a writer for a wine magazine brings in fun tidbits about wine while her love of mystery novels adds its own dimension. The mystery itself is superb; the cast of suspects is large and interesting, and the solution to the mystery unexpected and satisfying. I would certainly follow Jean to future installments of a mystery series.

Source disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program. I enjoyed it enough to buy my own copy.

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