AUTHOR: Donna Andrews

PUBLISHER: Minotaur Books

ISBN: 978-1250115478

If you read mysteries—especially cozy mysteries, where there’s no hard violence, little bad language, and amateur sleuths do all the detecting—and you haven’t read any of the now 23 books in the Meg Langslow series by Donna Andrews, you have really missed out on something special. I recall the universal delight with which the first book in the series was met. Murder with Peacocks came out in 1999, won four major mystery fiction awards, and was a finalist for two more. Overall, the series has won seven major awards and been a finalist for 23 others (according to  (according to Stop Your'e Killing Me website), the mystery lover’s go-to source for all things to do with crime fiction). The books are perennial New York Times bestsellers.

One caution before I start singing the praises of this funny, creative novel: You probably need to have read a few of the earlier ones to really appreciate this one. You simply can’t understand the gently wacky nature of many of the characters without having known them for a while. For instance, you won’t know that their diminutive dog Spike is a cantankerous little beast that will attack and terrorize anyone and anything except his family—and the family isn’t always immune from his bad temper. Late in the book, our knowledge of Spike’s nature makes what happens inevitable and believable. Then there’s Meg’s father, who after much time in the earlier books has become the medical examiner. He’s a doctor, but he’s also a huge mystery fan who falls into serial obsessions with offbeat topics and behaves in lovably odd ways. Her mother is a force of nature; she can get anyone to do anything and thank her for it afterwards.

Anyone new to the series would also seriously question Meg’s conveniently chummy relationship with the Chief of Police. He lets Meg mess around in his investigations with impunity. Even Murder She Wrote’s Jessica Fletcher didn’t get that kind of genial blessing from the local constabulary. If you’ve read many of the earlier books, however, you’ll understand how this came to be.

Now, given that caveat, let’s look at this story. Meg Langslow, the mother of twin baseball-playing boys and wife of a local college’s drama professor, is a decorative blacksmith in a small Pennsylvania town inhabited by a host of cousins and several clans of related odd-ball families. (What’s a “decorative blacksmith”? Read the books to find out.) Meg is super-organized, working out of a little book-that-tells-her-when-to-breathe, as she puts it. As a result, when odd things like murders happen, she tends to involuntarily wind up in the center of the action.

At the opening of the story, Meg is making the rounds of her local church’s property to lock things up for the night because the rector, her friend Robyn, is under medical orders to stay in bed for the last few months of her pregnancy. She hears a loud banging from the crypt at the rear of the churchyard. (OK, it’s a columbarium, but if I said that, how many of you would know that’s a room or building with niches for storage of funeral urns?) Going to investigate, she finds the freshly battered body of the church’s foremost curmudgeon. Protective panels have been pulled off of several niches and ashes are scattered all over.

The investigation leads to a 30-year old unsolved jewel robbery when a fabulous ruby ring from the robbery is found among the ashes. As Reverend Robyn’s representative, Meg has to track down the relatives of those whose ashes were disturbed to apologize and arrange to re-inter them. Somehow, this becomes inextricably tied up with the robbery. All agree that it is high time to figure out where the millions in jewels have gone.

The robbery occurred at a high-society New Year’s Eve party at a local snooty socialite’s mansion. Meg’s dad hits on a scheme to re-enact the robbery in hopes of learning more about the possible location of the lost loot. It seems like a silly idea, but it’s best to humor Dad in these matters. The mansion is now the property of a genial retired rock band drummer who is converting it—using blacksmith Meg’s talents with wrought iron—into a Gothic fantasy complete with dragons, warriors, and the like. The re-enactment with Meg, her father, the wealthy rock star, and actors from Meg’s drama professor husband’s classes is the riotous climactic scene, where all is finally revealed with the help of Spike and a bevy of angry black swans. (Yes, swans come in bevies. Look it up.)

This story is downright fun. It’s funny because of all those lovably wacky characters, who are just far enough beyond normal to be amusing without being grotesque. The mystery is finely drawn with logical reasons for everything that happens. There was one theory put forward by Meg to explain all the currently-known facts at one point that had me shaking my head with disbelief, but that was the only false note in the entire proceedings.

Oh, yes. Where is the toucan in all this? Reverend Robyn has been tending a navy man’s pet toucan while he is deployed. She kept it in her office. Now that’s she’s confined to bed with her difficult pregnancy, someone has to take care of the toucan for her. Things like that always fall to Meg. She sends it to her grandfather’s private zoo (which we have learned all about in earlier books) for tender loving care. The only problem is that the killer knows the “parrot”—who knew it was a toucan?—heard him repeating something incriminating just before the murder. Thinking the bird is a parrot leads him to worry that it might repeat what it heard. He doesn’t know toucans do not speak. Some parrots do, but never toucans. So the killer is trying to break into places where the toucan is kept in order to silence it. See what I mean when I say the story is wacky?

Buy this book and read it when you need to be cheered up. It’s certain to lighten your mood.