Book Review

A niche for every taste -- from soap to cups

CorrespondentAugust 26, 2007 

OK, mystery buffs, which niche is yours? Hardboiled? Police procedural? Psycho-thriller? Cotswold village cozy? South Florida wacko? Soapmaking?

Soapmaking? Why, yes, as a matter of fact. As in "A Pour Way to Dye: A Soapmaking Mystery," by Tim Myers. How about stuffed bear collecting? Decorative gourd crafting? Fresh baked goods baking?

Niche. Niche. Niche.

When it comes to niche pitching, carmakers, TV programmers, vodka purveyors and grocery chains have nothing on the folks who write and publish mysteries. Whereas it used to be just British or American, private eye or public copper, whodunit or howdunit, these days you can switch or ditch niches almost daily and never encounter the same mysterious subject matter twice.

I've spent a good part of the summer browsing through these little time-eaters, perfect for a medium plane trip, a visit to the mechanic or a wait for that root canal. I'm amazed at the enterprise and ingenuity that produced them.

People frequently turn up dead in these stories, but no one will bleed in your lap. The puzzles are generally plausible and engrossing. And even if you don't -- but all the better if you do -- have a working knowledge of, say, mobile library management (I'm not kidding), the writers' enthusiasm for their tiny little topics is infectious.

Take the aforementioned "A Pour Way to Dye" (Berkley/Prime Crime, $6.99, 230 pages), which is Tim Myers' second soapmaking mystery, following "Dead Men Don't Lye" and several candlemaking mysteries, including "At Wick's End." (An affinity for really corny titles is a big part of the niche pitch.)

In "Pour," Benjamin Perkins, owner of a small, family soapmaking shop gets into a serious property dispute with a jeweler next door. When the jeweler turns up murdered, clutching a bar of soap from Benjamin's shop, police suspicions quickly focus on him. He spends the rest of the novel in a lather trying to clear his and the family shop's names. Soapmaking tips -- as in, "add dye BEFORE fragrance" -- appear intermittently throughout the story.

In "A Peach of a Murder: A Fresh-Baked Mystery," by Livia J. Washburn (Signet, $6.99, 264 pages), crusty retired school teacher/amateur sleuth Phyllis Newsom looks into a local killing while trying to keep her prize-winning cobbler and cake recipes from jealous competitors during the annual Parker County, Texas, Peach Festival. (Promise not to peek, but there's a recipe for Phyllis's Spicy Peach Cobbler, among scrumptious others, at the end).

If you're the type who likes to make your own greeting cards -- or, as Hallmark calls you, "the enemy" -- tear open the latest in Elizabeth Bright's card-making series, "Murder and Salutations" (Signet, $6.99, 228 pages). Here the owner of a small-town Virginia custom card-making shop and recent Businessperson of the Year becomes enveloped in the investigation when her worst enemy, the president of the Chamber of Commerce, is murdered.

In addition to proving herself innocent, Jennifer Shane has to put up with complaints that, for example, a "My deepest sympathy" card she created for the victim's partner is "too pink." At the end of many chapters, there are how-to tips about "quilling" and other arcana of the card-maker's craft.

"Gourdfellas: A Gourd Craft Mystery," by Maggie Bruce (Berkley/Prime Crime, $6.99, 275 pages), following her recent "The Gourdmother," features Brooklynite Lili Marino who abandons the city to start a new life in a gourd-making studio and shop upstate. "Let's burn some gourds" is a common invitation in the novel.

Barely settled in, Lili becomes involved in a local brouhaha over plans to build a gambling casino near town. When a rifle used to murder a leading casino proponent turns up in Lili's house, she has to squash the town sheriff's efforts to pin the crime on her. While she's at it, Lili instructs us, for example, to set the heat on the stylus to six, "a good setting for general pyrography on a gourd with a medium thick shell." Who knew?

"Murder Most Frothy" and "Through the Grinder" (both Berkley/Prime Crime, $6.99) are two of Cleo Coyle's grande new Coffeehouse Mysteries featuring perky New York barista Clare Cosi, who somehow manages to blend herself into about every crime imaginable between her Greenwich Village coffee shop and the Hamptons. Like a good cup-a-joe, the stories will keep you alert and coming back for refills.

John J. Lamb will drive you absolutely ursine with his series of Bear Collector's Mysteries starring ex-homicide detective Brad Lyon. Set in the Shenandoah Valley, both "The Mournful Teddy" and "The False-Hearted Teddy" (Berkley/Prime Crime, $6.99 each) are somewhat more hard-boiled than others I've mentioned, but the fur rarely flies too far. What does is your amazement as you read what people will do -- and the prices they will pay -- to keep their jones for these a-DOR-able stuffed animals bearable. (Lamb owns over 600.)

I guess Ian Sansom's "Mr. Dixon Disappears: A Mobile Library Mystery" (Harper, $12.95, 252 pages) is not, strictly speaking, a niche mystery, in that probably not that many people spend their spare time delivering books to rural readers in a big old van. But Sansom's hero, Israel Armstrong, in his second appearance after "The Case of the Missing Books" will win the admiration of anyone who cares about books and reading. That's not a niche; it's a canyon.

In the current book, the usually miserable and very witty Israel, stuck "in the north of the north of Ireland," gets at least temporarily suspended when he noses too aggressively into the local constabulary's investigation into the disappearance of a popular Ulster magician and becomes a prime suspect himself.

Sansom's plot is terrific, but the real fun comes from Israel's droll disquisitions on book lore and, even more so, his sardonic librarian's observations about his various clients. "He was sick of the excuses and lies. He was tired of the evasions and untruths. ... It seemed to him another symptom of the decline of Western civilization ... entropy, nemesis, imminent apocalypse and sheer bad manners. People were not returning their library books on time."

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