Perennially put-upon bookseller Claire Malloy (A Holly, Jolly Murder, 1999, etc.) is marching to an assertive new beat these days. She may have been impoverished by the untimely demise of her philandering husband Carlton, frustrated beyond belief at the adolescent angst of her daughter Caron, betrayed by her boyfriend Peter, and left in the lurch by convention chair Sally Fromberger, who’s had the bad grace to be hospitalized with deep venal thrombosis on the eve of Farberville College’s “Murder Comes to Campus” conference. But Claire refuses to play nursemaid to the four quarrelsome authors—Laureen Parks (gothic novels), Sherry Lynne Blackstone (cat detectives), Walter Dahl, (psychological thrillers), and Dilys Knoxwood (cozies)—who arrive for the festivities along with sweet-as-pie bestseller Alexandra Cruzetti and her editor, Roxanne Small. Instead, she presses Caron and her best friend Inez into taxi duty; browbeats Lily Twiller, proprietor of the environmentally correct Azalea Inn into allowing Laureen to smoke in her room; wrangles Sherry Lynne’s feline traveling companion Wimple onto her sun-porch; and tirelessly exhorts the authors to quit bickering and get on with the show. She even succeeds in getting the pregnant, truculent English department secretary to let her leave several cartons of to-be-autographed books in the lecture hall. Getting them out, however, turns into a problem when Arnie Riggles, weekend custodian, turns up cold-cocked in the Azalea Inn’s cistern, along with a very dead Roxanne Small, sending Claire into an immediate heads-on with ex-beau Peter, Farberville’s chief of police.
First-rate Hess: crackling dialogue, winning characters, and an ingenious puzzle.