North Carolina author Jane Tesh continues her Tar Heel-themed “Grace Street Mysteries” with a whodunit that’s truly theatrical.
Tesh’s sleuth is David Randall, an emotionally scarred private eye who’s washed up in a boarding house at Playland, a city reminiscent of Asheville. His landlord is Camden, a rumpled psychic with piercing blue eyes, very useful to know if you’re a detective. His neighbors at 302 Grace St. are a motley collection of characters.
In “Just You Wait,” the grande dame of the Playland Little Theater has gone missing just before she’s supposed to open as Henry Higgins’ mother in “My Fair Lady.” Camden, who has a lovely singing voice, is cast as Freddie.
With Camden’s help, Randall locates the grand dame’s body, buried in her own basement. The cause of death was poisoned wine, which arrived in a bottle with a card reading, “Congratulations – You Deserve It.” Is someone in the cast jealous?
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Before they can figure out who did it, other cases emerge. Folly Harper, the CEO of a cosmetics company, just had her business partner abscond with a load of company cash. The eccentric Folly, however, really wants to talk with Camden. Obsessed with numerology, she wants him to pick out her lucky numbers.
Camden just wants to lead a normal life. This isn’t easy, since he has developed psychokinetic powers and can make objects levitate. This attitude doesn’t please his fiancee, Ellin, a TV producer who really wants to turn Camden into the next John Edwards.
Meanwhile, a jazz musician named Charlie asks Randall to investigate his lead singer and sweetheart, Taffy. Lately she’s been standoffish and has been ducking out of club dates. Charlie suspects another man, but Randall finds other complications.
Tesh takes a lighthearted tone: For much of the book, actual detection takes a back seat to Jane Austen-ish social maneuvering as a horde of eccentric relatives labor to herd Camden toward the altar with Ellin. Eventually, though, the pieces fall together, with the case resolving into a romp with switched corpses, a beauty pageant and tainted beauty creams.
Tesh – who plays piano for the Andy Griffith Playhouse in Mount Airy and knows a thing or two about semi-amateur theatricals – has a way to go before she reaches Margaret Maron’s level. Readers who prefer cozy mysteries to gritty police procedurals or dark “Gone Girl” yarns, however, should find 302 Grace St. a delightful place to visit.
Just You Wait
Poisoned Pen Press, 255 pages